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Middletown works to recover from deluge of water Sunday; 4.27 inches in an hour

By Dan Miller danmiller@pressandjournal.com
Posted 7/24/17

Water flooded homes, buildings and streets all over Middletown after rains dumped more than 4 inches of water on the borough in just one hour Sunday, July 23.

According to the National Weather …

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Middletown works to recover from deluge of water Sunday; 4.27 inches in an hour


In some ways, it’s hard to believe that a rain deluge of epic proportions fell upon Middletown just three days ago.

There is still some ponding in places. Barriers and yellow tape were still keeping the public out of Hoffer Park as of Tuesday, July 25.

But otherwise for the most part, the only visible signs of what happened can be seen in the ruined furniture, appliances, and other items that are being brought up out of basements all over the town.

That’s a lot.

So while it almost seems as though this never happened, the impact is something that many borough residents will be contending with for a long time.

According to the National Weather Service, 4.27 inches of rain fell at Harrisburg International Airport between 5:56 p.m. and 6:56 p.m. on Sunday, July 23, with 4.71 inches falling overall.

One woman, her niece and their dog had to be rescued by boat. Water came within a few feet of touching the train overpass atop South Wood Street, which has a posted clearance of 10 feet, 6 inches. A pickup truck on Wood Street was submerged by the flooding.

“Luckily the guy got out of his truck before he went under,” Middletown Police Officer Adam Tankersley said.

Businesses, apartments and homes all were affected by what looked like a river flowing on several streets.

Mayor James H. Curry III and borough Councilor Ian Reddinger spent much of Sunday evening driving around the borough.

Curry said he stopped at the house of a man who lived on Ann Street, The water was at the top of his basement steps.

“I said, ‘Are you OK?’” and the man started crying on the mayor’s shoulder, Curry said. “It’s really tough in that moment to figure out the right words. These people have been through a lot of this (flooding).”

The worst hit parts of Middletown were in the area of the Wood Street underpass and the areas of Ann, Wilson, South Catherine, Witherspoon, Lawrence and State streets. South Union Street was submerged and had to be closed for a period.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Jim Campbell said of the water rushing down the street Sunday night. “I guess maybe the ’72 flood. It came that quick. It was a river. It was just pushing the water all this way.”

Campbell grew up on Russell Avenue and has lived in the house at the northwest corner of Market and Wood for three years.

As of Tuesday, the American Red Cross still was assisting 35 people, including 24 adults and 11 children, said Red Cross spokeswoman Kim Maiolo. The agency is assisting with food, shelter and clothing.

Hardest hit

Eight families living in the Woodlayne Apartment complex at Wood and Wilson streets were evacuated and were put up in a hotel through the Red Cross, said Tom Foreman, Middletown’s Emergency Management Agency coordinator.

Another person living on Ann Street was evacuated and put up in a local hotel by the Red Cross. Foreman said he was not sure how soon this person can return.

John Hevel with the borough’s Public Works Department estimated that there was up to 6 feet of water in the basement of Woodlayne apartments. A man who was in the basement and worked at the complex declined to speak to the Press & Journal.

No injuries

A beam collapsed in the basement of a house on Ann Street, said Tankersley, who worked the 3-to-11 p.m. shift during the storm and in its immediate aftermath July 23, along with fellow MPD Officers Wade Bloom and Scott Tantlinger.

Foreman said he did not believe the flooding to be as bad as that of Tropical Storm Lee in September 2011, in that it does not appear that any structures were permanently damaged.

There were also no injuries or loss of life, Tankersley noted.

Electricity was cut to homes in the 100 block of Ann Street, out of concern for all the electrical equipment in the basement of the houses, Tankersley said.

Flooding also occurred in other areas of the borough, including on High and Adelia streets. The trailer park at Harborton Court was underwater, Tankersley said.

Numerous vehicles got stuck in the water, especially on Wood Street, where one pickup truck was submerged.

Other people had to be rescued from houses. The water was up to Tankersley’s waist — and he’s 6 feet, 1 inch tall.

Police were aided by Middletown firefighters, who helped rescue some people by boat, and by Emergency Medical Service workers.

Often police from other nearby jurisdictions show up to assist Middletown police in emergency situations, such as police from Lower Swatara Township.

That wasn’t the case this time, because police from Lower Swatara, Highspire and Penn State Harrisburg all had their hands full dealing with flood-related situations in their own jurisdictions.

Mayor, councilor have a look

Curry and Reddinger wanted to see the situation for themselves, and to lend whatever assistance they could to take some of the pressure off the police, firefighters, and public works people.

For example, at one point Curry saw people swimming in the floodwaters in Hoffer Park. The mayor advised them not to do that, as there was no way of knowing what kind of debris was in the water. The people listened, and left the area, the mayor said.

Besides the flooding he saw at Hoffer Park, Curry said he spoke with the owners of two homes on Water Street that were hit “very badly.”

The area of Spruce Street near Water Street was also bad, the mayor said. A shed was picked up by the water and went through a fence.

“Who in the world would have thought that storm yesterday was going to do what it did? It was quite amazing,” Curry said.

Backyard water hits 37 inches

Middletown residents like Ken Whitebread, who lives on Market Street just east of Wood Street, described what was basically a river that was flowing toward them from the area of the Wood Street railroad underpass to the north.

Whitebread was a deputy fire chief with the borough during the flooding in 2011.

The force of the water took out part of Whitebread’s fence in his backyard, and also toppled an air-conditioning unit that remained attached to Whitebread’s house.

Whitebread’s basement was full of water, but he did not have any water on the first floor of his home. The water in his backyard was 37 inches high, as seen in a water mark on Whitebread’s shed in his backyard.

He had no water on the morning of Monday, July 23, because the hot water heater in his basement broke free and busted off a water line. He was waiting for a plumber to come out, and was also waiting for someone to come out and check out the air-conditioning unit.

Otherwise, some Christmas decorations and tools that were in the basement were damaged. Whitebread was hoping to salvage them.

Things probably would have been worse, if not for a neighbor whom Whitebread said brought over some pumps to help him and others on the street.

As he was cleaning out, Whitebread pointed to a fuel tank that had come loose from somewhere and had been carried by the water to his yard.

Whitebread’s next door neighbor to the east, Ron Fleck, also had a basement full of water, but no water on the first floor.

Like other residents who live in this area, Whitebread and Fleck said they had no flood insurance.

“This isn’t a flood zone,” Whitebread said, or at least that’s what officials say. This kind of flooding is only supposed to happen once every 100 years, he added.

“Really?” Whitebread asked incredulously, noting that it has now happened twice in the last six years, since 2011.

Whitebread said development in the borough north of where he lives, including the housing complex for Penn State Harrisburg students along West Main Street, is contributing to the problem.

“Before that I didn’t have any problems,” he said. “How often are we going to keep going through this and is someone looking at the water runoff problem? We lie low here and we are just getting the brunt of everything.”

The fuel tank that ended up in Whitebread’s yard floated there after the force of the water dislodged the tank from a building behind Whitebread’s house along Witherspoon Avenue.

Business might not move back in

The building is owned by Brian Reidinger and leased to Duke Kelly, who has a construction business, DKC LLC.

Kelly’s wife, Heidi, and her 6-year-old niece and their dog were in the garage of the building and had to be rescued by boat.

Kelly said she called 911 when she saw that the water was over her car.

“I was up on the loft when they came to get me,” she said. The water was almost to the waist of the firefighters and the police officers.

The business is in “bad shape,” Duke Kelly told the Press & Journal as he was trying to clean up Monday, July 23. He got his truck out, but the rest of the vehicles and the equipment he uses for his business was all underwater.

Reidinger said he used to have a fuel oil business in the same building as Kelly, but that he sold the business after the building was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

When Reidinger rebuilt the building, he raised the electric outlets higher off the ground. Floodwaters inside the building Sunday night didn’t get as high as the outlets, but the water was higher than during Sandy in 2012, Reidinger said.

Kelly had a “good business” in the building, but after this he’s not going to want to move back in. Reidinger’s not sure how he will be able to lease the building to anyone else, under these circumstances.

He’s hoping that he or Kelly will be able to receive some kind of assistance from the federal government, if disaster funds can be made available.

Is flooding worse?

Reidinger agrees with Whitebread that development has increased the runoff that flows onto his properties.

“They paved the playground at the (former) Mansberger Elementary School (on Ann Street). Where is water supposed to go?” Reidinger said. “We’re the low point. All the water comes down here. This is becoming a big retention pond for this end of town.”

There are storm drainage inlets on Witherspoon Avenue, but the borough doesn’t keep them clean of debris, Reidinger said.

Borough Manager Ken Klinepeter said that the system was basically overwhelmed by 4 to 5 inches of rain.

Pour water in gradually, and the system handles it just fine. Dump too much water into the funnel too fast — like on Sunday — and the water comes out over the top.

Development north of the borough does affect the amount of stormwater that flows into the town, but that can’t easily be blamed upon recent building, Klinepeter said. Many years ago the land north of the borough was nothing but farms. If anything, development — such as the Penn State student housing and buildings being constructed upon the campus — is much better regulated when it comes to controlling stormwater, Klinepeter said.

Beyond that, it’s a matter of topography.

“Water flows downhill. We’re at the point of where the creek and the river meet, so we’re the low elevated town here. So when 4 to 5 inches of water comes down, we’re not only getting the 4 to 5 inches that lands in Middletown, we’re getting some of it from north of us. Did somebody plan for that type of development 50 years ago? Probably not,” Klinepeter said.

He referred to a Facebook post showing the stream that runs through Penn State Harrisburg turning into a river Sunday that flowed across 230.

That water contributed to the flooding on Wood, Wilson and Ann street, Klinepeter said.

“What’s the solution? We can make that pipe bigger the whole way to the river” but that requires a regional approach, not just because the cost is beyond the ability of the borough to pay for by itself, but because this involves development outside of the borough that is beyond the borough’s control.

Market Street

Things weren’t as bad on the west side of Market, across from Wood. Jim Campbell grew up nearby, on Russell Avenue, and has lived in the house at the northwest corner of Market and Wood for three years.

The area of Market Street east of Wood, where Whitebread and Fleck live, is a lower elevation. Neighbors refer to this area as “the commons.”

Monday, there was still water in the basements of homes on the west side of Market Street. Roy Heller said he had 2 feet of water in the basement of his home, which has a dirt cellar.

He had a hot water heater in the basement, and “I’m pretty sure it’s gone,” Heller said.

He and his wife Leila and their three children had only moved in the house a few weeks ago.

Before that, Heller and Leila and their children had lived in the Philippines. Heller’s brother has a little resort in the Philippines. Heller went to visit his brother, and he met his future wife.

He brought his family to the United States about a year ago.

Heller is a Middletown native and a 1959 graduate of Middletown Area High School. He used to work for the post office here.

“We’ve seen heavy rain before” living in the Philippines, Heller said. “We’re kind of used to flooding, but we thought we got out of that when we came here.”

Lower Swatara Township

The mobile home park surrounding Lisa Lake was evacuated during the flooding, but waters had receded as of Monday, said Frank Williamson, township manager.

Six to eight people who live in the park were displaced and were being assisted by the Red Cross.

The Richardson Road area was “hit hard” during the flooding, but was reopened as of Monday.

Floodwaters damaged Rosedale Drive between Stoner Road and Meade Avenue, Williamson said. Floodwaters washed away the base of the road and have made the guide rail unstable.

Mountain View Road had water under the surface and will need to be repaved. However, the road is passable, Williamson said.

Londonderry Township

The township received “a few calls” Monday, mostly concerning debris in the road and tree limbs down, said Manager Steve Letavic.

He did not know of any residents who had to leave their home.

“We actually were very fortunate relative to the amount of damage we had,” he said.

Press & Journal reporter David Barr contributed to this story.