Downpour brings problems; flowing stones from Oak Hall park anger residents

crosenblum@centredaily.comJune 25, 2014 

— Through a curtain of rain, Darlene Smith looked out a window of her Oak Hall home.

She first saw mud streaming across Linden Hall Road — then something more frightening.

An avalanche of rocks and coffee-colored water slid toward her, unleashed by torrential rainfall Wednesday afternoon. The landslide flowed down the unfinished Oak Hall Regional Park’s steep driveway opposite her home.

Gray, chunky rocks piled up mainly in the road and against a roadside fence along the property of the historic stone house along Spring Creek she shares with her husband, Stan.

But many slipped further downhill to crush their garden, spill across their yard and block their back porch.

“I came out, and it was the sound of water and rocks coming down the hill,” Darlene Smith said. “It was noisy.”

And scary, she added. Smith wonders if the park will pose a risk to her home and safety.

“Now I’m going to worry every time it rains,” she said.

Wednesday’s storm, however, was unusually intense, quickly deluging the area.

According to the local National Weather Service office, which issued a local flood warning until Wednesday night, as much as 1.78 inches of rain fell on downtown State College between 2 and 3 p.m.

Port Matilda and other parts of the Centre Region also were soaked, though to a lesser degree. University Park Airport in Benner Township received .61 inches, NWS meteorologist Joe Ceru said.

Flooding occurred on the 100 block of North Atherton Street, around Railroad Avenue, temporarily blocking traffic. At least one car was stuck, driving away after the waters receded. Other vehicles turned around before police closed the road for 30 minutes.

Memorial Field, home to State College Area High School sports teams, turned into a lake. Flooding shut down East College Avenue between Porter Road and Squirrel Drive for about 45 minutes.

During the storm, lightning struck a Sparks Street property, said State College police Sgt. Todd Scholton. He said he was not aware of any damage.

There were no reports of downed wires or tree limbs, Scholton said, though West Penn Power reported as many 20 residences in the Holmes-Foster neighborhood lost power Wednesday afternoon.

In Oak Hall, six Centre Region Parks and Recreation employees cleared rocks from Linden Hall Road and the park entrance with shovels and a skid steer.

While they worked, police set up roadblocks and angry residents gathered.

Darlene Smith and a neighboring couple, Joe and Linda Westrick, said they’re upset with Centre Region Parks and Recreation, which oversees the park.

They said CRPR officials told them, after two incidents of flooding and erosion at the base of the park hill a year ago, that the problem had been fixed.

“Everybody told us everything had been put in place, and it wouldn’t happen again and it’s been addressed,” Linda Westrick said. “But here we are, and it’s happened again.”

She and her husband live nearby on Boalsburg Pike, but own 2 creekside acres downhill from the affected intersection of Linden Hall Road and the Oak Hall Regional Park entrance.

After last year’s flooding, Joe Westrick rebuilt a gravel lane from the road down to their property, adding drainage pipes among other improvements.

But Wednesday’s flow of rock and mud, described by residents as a “wall of water,” washed out much of his handiwork.

“It was like a cascading waterfall,” Linda Westrick said. “Now he has to do it all over again.”

Joe Westrick said he thought from his conversations with CRPR officials that the park was finished.

“If this is their idea of done, they need to go back to school,” he said.

Directing the Oak Hall cleanup, CRPR Director Ron Woodhead said the 68-acre park straddling College and Harris townships actually was 90 percent completed.

The final part, he said, involves grading, mulching and seeding the park’s four softball fields and other landscaping. Recreation officials hope to open the park partially this fall and completely in spring 2015, he said.

“Because we need a couple of seasons to get the turf established,” Woodhead said.

Oak Hall residents said Wednesday they suspected the park’s stormwater management system was to blame for the flood.

Woodhead said he didn’t know what caused the flood but that his department and the CRPR’s engineering firm, Ferguson Township-based Stahl Sheaffer Engineering, would do a thorough investigation.

“It’s just a matter of seeing what happened and seeing what was overwhelmed, and making sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.

Once the cause is determined, Stahl Sheaffer will recommend improvements to the Centre Regional Recreation Authority board and to Leonard S. Fiore Inc., the Altoona-based contractor responsible for the park, Woodhead said.

“We’re just as concerned as anyone else,” he said.

Wednesday’s heavy rain “happened at a bad time” for the park in its final phase, with the soil “disrupted” from seeding and landscaping, Woodhead said.

“To get a lot of water we got today, it’s going to move, and that’s what happened,” he said.

Carla Myers, the Smiths’ daughter-in-law, said she’s concerned about future floods jeopardizing her in-laws or park visitors. She pointed to the wall of rocks near the Smiths’ home.

“Think about the strength of the water to do that,” she said, noting that if a car had been there, it would have been pushed into the house.

Linda Westrick said the location has flooded before from water running down to Linden Hall Road, but never like Wednesday. Darlene Smith agreed that the mess was more than an act of nature.

“This was a manmade problem,” she said.

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter@CRosenblumNews. Staff writers Britney Milazzo and Casey McCracken contributed to this report.

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