On Friday July 19 the most devastating flood in history hit the Punxsutawney area. Hard hit were Brookville, Big Run, Summerville, and Punxsutawney. Millions of dollars worth of damage were done. Several homes were swept away in Summerville, Flood waters inudated the first floor of hundreds of homes in the area. A tornado struck the area Friday morning also and blew six mobile homes around seriously injuring two people. At least one mobile home was blown to bits.
The problem started earlier in the week. There were several heavy thunderstorms that had passed through the area on previous days dumping heavy rain and saturating the ground. Around 3AM, early on Friday morning, a series of violent storms started to pass accross the area. By 7AM or so, they had dumped nearly 5 inches of rain. Suddenly, even the most insignificant of creeks, streams and runs turned into raging torrents. Roads were washed out and flood waters made travel impossible. Basements began to fill. People who lived on hills and who had never gotten water in their basements got water. Route 119 in the area of the "Little Leo" camp was under 7 feet of water.
Another violent thunderstorm at midmorning was the last straw. Worst of all, the mid morning storm had included a tornado. The tornado struck near Frostburg a caused a little damage. Then it touched down at the Country Club where it blew a couple of trees over. Next it skipped to the "Devil's Elbow" area near the little town of Hillman. This is where it did the most damage. It tore into 6 mobile homes, blowing one like a tumbleweed accross the highway and over an embankent. Two people were very seriously injured in the mobile home. Bits and pieces of mobile home are in the trees and many trees are twisted and splintered. Some garages and barns were also hit as the tornado ripped it's way to Hillman. The trees along the way show the route. I've heard reports that a garage was destroyed with a car and pick-up inside. The car and pick-up were left sitting relatively unharmed but the garage disappeared from around them. I also heard that a barn with a mule inside it was carried away.
Meanwhile, the flood waters were flowing. The Elk Run section of Punxsutawney was hit first and hit hard. In the area near Jefferson Grocery and Acme Machine cars were thrown accross the parking lots. One truck wound up on top of a gas meter. The Vinnie's Comet Market in Elk Run was hard hit. There was a canoe wrapped around a pole out front and the trailer out in the parking lot that sold Italian Sausage was destroyed.
By midday the Mahoning Creek had risen to the top of the flood control dike. Soon afterward the waters actually began spilling over the top of the dike and the evacuation began. The dike was breached first right accross from the Central Fire Station downtown. A blowout also developed behind the Bi-Lo in the Punxsutawney Plaza. Water spread rapidly into all low-lying neighborhoods. This included East End to the old Railroad crossing, Union Street area, Indiana St., and all of the area between Gilpin Street west to the Punxsy Plaza. The waters rose quickly leaving little time for anyone to prepare. The water in the Pine St. and Punxsy Plaza area was 4 to 5 feet deep. Water flooded nearly all the basements in these areas and was deep enough to inundate the first floors of many homes. Businesses affected included everything in the Punxsy Plaza area including Bi-Lo (Riverside) and Ames. Watermelons from the grocery store were floating everywhere. Mahoning Valley Milling was under water on Indiana St. as was the business district in East End. The Blose-MacGregor Nursing Home had to be evacuated and had water 5 feet deep inside it. Fortunately, this water did not have too much movement to it. There were no raging torrents to destroy property. For the most part the water was stagnant. The National Guard rescued several people who were trapped in their homes. Amazingly, the main downtown business district on Mahoning St. and the Groundhog Plaza was spared for the most part.
By early evening, the water in the creek had subsided. The flood waters on Pine St., however, kept rising until about 9PM. People checking on their homes either had to wade through chest-deep water or come by boat. The radio station, WPXZ, was very good at reporting the disaster. They were reporting from a rowboat using a cellular phone. By Saturday morning, the water had receded some, but Pine St. was still under water. It was Saturday afternoon before all the water disappeared off the streets. Firemen from as far away as Clymer converged on the area to start pumping basements. Pumping went on until Sunday. Many basements pumped early on Saturday just filled right back up due to the saturated ground. After the water was gone, there remained a layer of oily, slimey, smelly mud. Everything from people's basements and often the first floor too, came outside to dry. It looked like a town-wide flea market. There were several reports of looting, especially in Big Run, but it didn't seem to be a problem. Rain showers kept coming; they were a problem. Soon the town was piled high with water damaged stuff. There were countless hot water tanks, washers, dryers, and stoves. Many sofas, chairs and kitchen cabinets were piled up also. The borough workers came along and loaded everything into huge dump trucks. I heard that at least 70 automobiles were destroyed by the flood.
Big Run was hard hit also. I believe that the entire end of Big Run at the end towards Punxsutawney was under water. Most got first floor damage there too. Route 119 was lined with soaked household items. There was no way in or out of Big Run for a time as water flooded the roads.
Summerville had several homes that were swept away completely by flood waters. In all 14 homes were damaged beyond repair. An elderly couple had to be rescued by boat through their attic window. Flood waters also hit hard in New Bethlehem.
Brookville also suffered extensive damage. Part of the Brookville Waterworks Dam broke and flood waters reached record depths. Three houses were swept away and 250 people were evacuated from their homes. I think I heard that the damage there could add up to 100 million dollars. Many businesses were wiped out including Central Refrigeration, Penn Separator, Brookville Mining Equipment, A. Ferraro Co., Cook's Electric and many others. The scene was one of total devastation. My family is upset to hear that Buff's Ice Cream suffered extensive damage also. There was another big flood back in 1936, but older residents say that the flood of 1996 was worse, according to one report, the water was 4 to 5 feet higher this time.
President Clintion has declared the area a major disaster area. We are now eligible for federal aid. So many people who live in Punxsutawney are living on incomes that people in other places would not believe. Many of the jobs around here pay minimum wage or just a little more. Yet, people live here and enjoy living here. Many people, however, will find it very difficult to recover from this disaster.
This report comes a bit late. This is because my own home was hit by the flood. I had 6 feet of water in my basement and up to three feet of water in my yard. My workshop and my garden shed were soaked. We spent the last week cleaning up mud. My neighbors on either side of me got water right up to the top of their basements. They both lost their automobiles that were parked in their yards. Another neighbor down the street had his car parked in the street and the water got up to his rear view mirror ...the one on the inside, not the lower one on the outside! Oil, gasoline, and transmission fluid , and who-knows-what-else was floating on the waters as they rose. There is damage to vegetation as a result. Over on Lane Ave., the home of Dr. Santos had it's foundation crumble under it. The home sags in the middle and brickwork has crumbled off. The cleanup is not done yet. The smell of the flood waters is still here and the basement is heavy with moisture.
Recovery from what was probably the worst storm in history has been progressing slowly. It rains more just about every day which just slows the drying process. My home is in working order again, though we miss our freezer that was lost in the flood. My workshop that was under 6 feet of water is scattered everywhere and everything is just a little rustier than it was before! The boiler fired up the other day for the first time in two weeks as I finally got the mechanism dried out. The rebuilding goes on in Punxsutawney and surrounding communities.
I went for a walk down Pine St. last night and realized that I was lucky that I lost as little as I did. The water was 5 feet deep near the railroad crossing and the water covered the first floor of many homes down there. One woman who was still hosing mud off of some items, had a garden that looked like it was hit by a frost. The flood waters apparently killed everything as the gasoline leaked out of the service station accross the street. One home stood abandoned with muddy and water damaged appliances and a TV set out in front. The foundation of one appeared to be severely damaged. Several doors down from my house, a neighbor has his car up on blocks attemping to get it going again. His dashboard has mud from the flood on top of it. Another neighbor has an empty driveway now where once he and his wife parked their cars, both cars lost to the flood. A car goes down the street a little to fast and a cloud of brown dust follows it down the street reminding me how much mud there was all over everything 2 weeks ago.
We went for a ride to check out the car and see if it was okay after the flood and drove out to the tornado blow-down. Out near "Devil's Elbow" there are twisted trees and branches everywhere. The roof of a mobile home blew off and was blown into some trees like aluminum foil. A nice modular home is now split in two and half the roof is gone. One mobile home burned after it was blown accross the road and nothing is left but the frame. An old farmhouse right in the middle of the path of detruction looks as if it sustained no damage at all.
The Bi-Lo Market in the Punxsy Plaza opened back up today. They lost 80 percent of their inventory in the flood. The Ames Store has opened too. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) has been busy, nearly 2000 people have applied for disaster relief.
Our Museum was flooded by the July 19th Flood in Punxsutawney. All displays and items in the basement were severly damaged or destroyed as the water reached up to just a couple of inches below the first floor level. They entire negative collection was in the basement. Probably less than a quarter of the collection was saved. Thousands of priceless negatives had to be thrown away. Most of these negatives were not yet looked at to see what was on them. The good news, however, is that most of the negatives that were already catalogued and printed were saved. Almost all of the thousands of glass negatives were painstakingly cleaned, dried and put in new storage envelopes. Many thousands of other negatives have been placed in a freezer at Jefferson Grocery for later recovery efforts. We hope we can save some of them (Do you want to help!?). The coal mining and railroad displays were also in the basement and destroyed. Rebuilding work continues.
On October 1 there are two stories resulting from the July 19th flood. The first is that the dam in Brookville is going to be drained for inspection. The dam was heavily damaged in the flood and there may still be erosion at the base of the dam which needs to be repaired. They hope to start work on a 3.5 million dollar rebuilding project next spring. The second story is that the Redbank High School in New Bethlehem has finally opened for classes. During the July 19th flood some of the classrooms were filled to the ceilings with muddy water. To make up for the lost time, there will be classes on six Saturdays plus they will only have one day of vacation for Christmas and New Years. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reports that some $24 million in disaster assistance has been approved in the 10 county flood area.
The Spirit (local newspaper) is publishing a book about the Great Flood of 1996. The 136 page book features 150 pictures and many stories of the July 19th flood. They are currently accepting advanced payments for the book. The advanced payment reduces the cost of the book by $1 under the cover price. This reduced price is $7.95 plus around $2 shipping. If this book is anything like their recent publications, it should be a very good buy. They have a coupon in the paper that you cut out and send in. For those of you reading this that would like to order a copy, I suggest that you call The Spirit at (814)938-8740 or write to them at 510 Pine St.; Punxsutawney, PA 15767.