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A city imperiled: Johnstown’s river walls at risk of failure

By CODY McDEVITT and BRUCE SIWY, (Somerset) Daily AmericanJune 8, 2019

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Rusted beams, overgrown tree branches and shrubs accompanied by excessive amounts of moss show the signs of age and disrepair of the channel walls near the intersection of Otto Court and Akers Street around Bishop McCort High School. About 10 feet of the wall gave out a couple months ago. Pieces of it, collectively about as large as a refrigerator, fell into the stream and were carried off by the water.

Richard Riblett, a tenant in a neighboring home along Akers Street for 20 years, said he notified a city worker three years ago about the state of the wall. Nothing happened.

“They need to check this out,” he said. “If more of the wall goes down, the house won’t stand.”

The responsibility of fixing the river walls has been tossed from politician to private citizen to conservation official as easily as a football is between kids. But this is no game.

For a community known as Flood City, the infrastructure to prevent another such disaster has been neglected for more than a decade because of inadequate funding and blame-shifting.

The final result of all this could be greater property damage and a larger number of lives lost should another great flood hit Johnstown.

Governmental entities are trying to pass along repair costs to individuals who own property along the river channel there and in other neighborhoods. Some of the private owners who have received a letter from the state Department of Environmental Protection are contesting ownership of the walls. They claim they didn’t purchase that part when they bought the homes along Cherry Run. Lawyers on their behalf argue that these property owners aren’t responsible for paying for the repairs.

But Bryan Rabish of the Cambria County Conservation District contests that viewpoint.

Rabish is a watershed specialist and erosion and sedimentation technician with the conservation district, which is delegated oversight of water obstruction and encroachment and erosion and sedimentation problems by the Department of Environmental Protection. He personally inspected the Cherry Run canal near Bishop McCort.

Tax maps, Rabish said, typically indicate that property lines along the city’s tributaries extend into the middle of the streams.

“It becomes the owner’s responsibility to operate and maintain those structures,” he said. “You’re naturally going to have obstructions in the stream when they cave in. Somebody ultimately owns the walls.”

Rabish, who’s been with the conservation district for nearly two decades, added that channel collapses seem to be occurring more frequently.

City Manager George Hayfield agreed that the aging river wall and stormwater systems are a concern — one that will likely require outside assistance. Johnstown has been in Pennsylvania’s Act 47 status for financially distressed municipalities since 1992.

“If we were to calculate the cost — tens of millions in repairs,” Hayfield said during an interview in his office. He pointed out that the price tag for a mere 100-foot stretch of wall along Sams Run is estimated at $475,000.

“Even a million dollars doesn’t go very far. In the long term it’s a big dollar sign.”

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Help from the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority doesn’t seem likely.

William Gleason Barbin, the authority’s solicitor, told the Daily American that maintenance of the tributary channels has been handled exclusively by city employees in recent years. He cited the redevelopment authority’s role in performing state-mandated sewer work as a primary reason.

He said that during Frank D’Ettorre’s tenure as acting executive director, a lack of staff and increasing sewage responsibilities made further work for the city more difficult. The city public works took back the handling of routine maintenance, Barbin said.

According to Barbin, the redevelopment authority used to carry out city obligations incurred under maintenance agreements between Johnstown, other upstream municipalities and the commonwealth’s Department of General Services for each of the five local tributaries. This did not include the main river walls along the Stonycreek, Conemaugh or Little Conemaugh rivers.

Around 1982, Barbin was involved in the finalization of the Solomon Run Project in Stonycreek Township, Walnut Grove and Hornerstown. Immediately prior to bidding construction, the Department of General Services required a signed maintenance contract by the city and Stonycreek Township.

“My recollection is that the maintenance costs were split between the two municipalities based upon length of the project in each municipality,” Barbin wrote. “In the early 1980s the City engaged the Redevelopment Authority to monitor construction of the Solomon Run project on behalf of the City.”

Barbin said inspection reports on the flood protection system were unfavorable again by the early 1990s. So D’Ettorre hired contractors to remove vegetation and clean debris basins during the next 15 years or so.

“While Frank would engage contractors, the contracts were always made in the name of the City of Johnstown and payments to the contractors were from the City,” he said.

A few of the redevelopment authority’s in-house newsletters from 2009 and 2014 indicate that the authority is responsible for the tributary channels. Barbin said he didn’t know these documents existed.

“Our prior Executive Director (Ron Repak) was very good with Bureaucratese and he had tendencies towards self-promotion,” he wrote. “I personally am unaware of any ‘Johnstown Flood Control Project Maintenance Management System’, although it sounds like something that would keep track of maintenance issues. I did send a letter to a local resident’s attorney in 2008 concerning vegetation removal along the Elks Run channel. In that letter, I clearly identified the Authority’s role as agent for the City.”

He said the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority has always attempted to assist the city in carrying out its responsibilities and duties, but that does not change the fact that these are duties and responsibilities of the city.

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Further up the road along Otto Court in the 8th Ward, a sign on an unoccupied property says: “Danger Keep Out.”

The house’s backyard is located on a bridge over the canal wall. The reason for the sign is that the bridge is at risk of collapsing. Someone placed a wooden board over a hole where the material had crumbled.

Janet Bishop, who lives in and owns a property along McKinley Avenue, pointed out various collapsing parts of the wall while she walked carefully along the canal’s edge. Bishop lived through the 1977 flood, and half her yard was flooded while the walls were still in decent shape.

“What’s it gonna do with these?” she asked.

The three great floods were caused in part by terrible storms. Brett Anderson, a senior meteorologist, said all cities and communities have a greater chance of flooding now than they did 100 years ago because of the increased rainfall brought about by climate change.

Theoretically, warmer temperatures hold more water, which leads to more torrential downpours. Cambria County’s precipitation — which includes rain, sleet and snow — has increased an average of 5 inches a year since the start of the millennium.

There has clearly been an increase in years with unusually high annual precipitation since the mid-1990s, Anderson said.

“Based on what I know, having a ‘storm of the century’ is not as rare as it was let’s say 30 to 50 years ago,” he said. “If we continue with business as usual in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, these rare storms may become even more commonplace by the end of the century.”

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At Bishop McCort High School, parts of the wall have already collapsed, putting students and staff at risk. Tom Fleming, the former principal of the school, declined to be interviewed for the article in late April when he was still head of the facility, but he did reply via email regarding the letter he received from the Department of Environmental Protection.

“The school’s leadership is in the process of determining, based on a survey of the area, who owns the land where the flood wall is damaged,” Fleming wrote. “The documents we have examined do not definitively establish that Bishop McCort is responsible for repairing the wall. We are drafting our response to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Water Obstruction and Encroachment Inspection Report.”

Rabbits that run away from barking dogs often fall through one of the holes in the wall down the hill from Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center. Bishop and others living along the canal get a ladder when they do in the hopes of rescuing them.

She fears more for human safety.

“I think it’s extremely dangerous,” Bishop said. “If we had neighborhood kids go back there, they’d fall in.”

Bishop thinks the onus of paying for the repairs should fall upon the city, state and federal bodies that maintain the main channels.

“I don’t know how they expect property owners to fix this,” she said. “It was the Army Corps of Engineers that built it.”

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(Johnstown’s river walls have been described as unacceptable by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Throughout the city, the channels have crumbled and left homes, people and property at risk of being destroyed. This is a four-part Daily American/Our Town investigation into the matter.)

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