JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Joel Landis can’t predict what the remnants of Hurricane Ida will bring to the region Wednesday.
But Somerset County’s emergency management director is thankful he’s had time to prepare for it.
Forecasts are predicting Greater Johnstown could see 3 to 5 inches of rain over a 36-hour period ending Thursday morning, thanks to the passing of Ida, while Somerset County could see 6 inches.
That could mean the highest totals the area has seen in decades, bringing flash floods and likely outages with it.
While the region’s main rivers and dams are built to handle the deluge at this time of the year, that’s not the case for flood-prone streams, low-lying roadways and basements.
But Landis and Cambria County Emergency Management Agency Coordinator Art Martynuska said they have been working for days to coordinate with local agencies, emergency responders and other partners to ensure help is ready.
“We’ve alerted our water rescue teams. We’ve added extra staffing at our 911 centers to prepare for the increased call volume, and all of our partners are checking their equipment to make sure it’s ready in the event of an emergency situation,” Martynuska said.
That includes swift- water response teams in Cambria and Somerset counties, which are routinely deployed during major storms when someone becomes stranded in a creekside home or, more often, a vehicle.
A helicopter rescue team will be on standby at the John Murtha Johnstown- Cambria County Airport in Richland Township for rescues that might not be feasible on land, he said.
Discussions were also underway with the American Red Cross about emergency shelters in Somerset County – namely school districts and senior centers – that can be opened, if needed.
That means penciling in volunteers and mapping out back-up routes for them to access those centers in case a primary roadway is flooded, Landis said.
Those who live in areas that are commonly impacted by stormwater and flooding streams should prepare for problems, Landis said.
“If you’re in a location that is typically prone to flooding when storms come through, they are going to flood again if 4 to 6 inches of rain fall,” he said.
“If your basement floods, you should expect that to happen Wednesday.”
But steps can be taken to mitigate the risks, Landis added.
That includes moving any valuables stored in basements to higher ground, charging cellphones ahead of time in case outages occur, picking up flashlight batteries and then avoiding travel once the storm hits, particularly on flood-prone roads, he said.
For those who must drive Wednesday, be cautious, Martynuska said.
“The old saying, ‘Turn around, don’t drown,’ holds true. If you see water flowing over a roadway, don’t try to drive through it, because we’ve seen a lot of cases where someone suddenly becomes stranded and has to be rescued,” he said.
Vehicles aren’t as heavy as they once were, meaning they are more likely to be swept away than they were 30 years ago.
Outside homes, it doesn’t hurt to check storm drains nearby. Clearing them of leaves, debris and branches can make a difference, Martynuska said.
Rare rainfall possible
National Weather Service Meteorologist Barry Lambert said it’s not uncommon for a hurricane-fueled storm to wallop the region this time of year.
But this one will “get a little more energy” from a trough – or upper level low – in New England as it approaches.
It could bring as much as four-tenths of an inch per hour of rain to the region – heavy rain – for five to 10 straight hours during the day Wednesday, Lambert said.
“We’ve seen worse, but it’s going to be bad enough that it’s going to cause quite a bit of stream flooding,” he said.
For Johnstown, current projections are just a fraction of the total that drenched Johnstown on July 20, 1977, the date of the last great flood.
Nearly 9 inches fell that day.
And some estimates have reported that 12 inches fell over one 24-hour period leading into that night.
Still, if projections hold true, Wednesday’s rainfall could rank among Cambria County’s higher totals, according to data from Northeast Regional Climate Center climatologist Jessica Spaccio.
Over the past 20 years, the most rainfall recorded in a single day in Johnstown is 3.15 inches, according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center, which logs totals recorded at the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County airport.
Just under 3 inches fell during a rain-soaked summer of 2018 that saw repeated flash flooding across the region.
The region’s weather station was in downtown Johnstown for a century before that point and aside from the 1977 flood, the highest-recorded totals were reported in July 22, 1964 (4.09 inches); July 29, 1945 (4.27 inches); and June 16, 1912 (4.46 inches)
Somerset’s record is 4.97 inches in 1954, meaning this week’s storm could set a new record.
The storm is also moving through while a small, damaged river channel remains in need of attention in Johnstown’s 8th Ward.
In a change of plans, city officials are soliciting bids from contractors to do the work needed to remove more than 35 feet of broken concrete river wall that fell into Cherry Run last month. Due to an equipment breakdown, city crews were unable to remove the slab themselves last week, Public Works Director Jared Campagna said.
The goal is to get it done “as soon as possible,” he said.
That won’t be in time to remove the wall before a powerful storm moves into the region that could dump 2 to 4 inches of rain on Johnstown.
But Campagna said the Cherry Run channel should be able to do its job through heavy rains, even with more than 35 feet of broken wall on the stream bed.
“It might limit the (capacity) a little bit, but I don’t see (the slab) going anywhere,” he said, noting it’s “extremely” heavy.
The city does not own the property, and responsibility for the narrow 8th Ward channel remains unsettled.
City officials were able to obtain approval from PennDOT two weeks ago to enter the corridor and remove the debris, a task Campagna said will require an excavator, jackhammers and several days of work.
Dams ‘can handle it’
Operators of the region’s largest dams say their reservoirs are ready for the heavy amount of rainfall that will likely pour in Wednesday.
Despite recent rains, the Quemahoning Reservoir is lower than usual for August – 2 feet below its main spillway as of Tuesday morning, Cambria Somerset Authority Chairman Jim Greco said.
“We’ve had water a foot above the spillway repeatedly at the Que and it held up. That dam handled (the rainfall received during) the Johnstown Flood,” he said.
Right now, there’s plenty of room for more water, Greco said.
And while century-old dams, including Wilmore and Hinckston Run in Cambria County, don’t have modern mechanisms to quickly lower their levels, each have spillways designed to enable water to escape when levels rise, he said.
“We’re in good shape,” Greco said.