Creeks burst as heavy rains flood county roadways
The year 2018 in Centre County can be described by one word — wet.
The most recent National Weather Service data shows an annual precipitation total of 63.73 inches measured in State College. That’s a 24.09-inch increase from normal, according to the federal weather service’s “Accumulated Precipitation” graph.
Toward the end of November, 2018 became the wettest year on record in State College, when the precipitation levels surpassed the 59.30 inches collected in 1996. As of Nov. 27, there had been 172 days with measurable precipitation — at least half the days in 2018 — according to Steve Seman, Penn State assistant teaching professor of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science.
With all that rain came widespread flash-flooding, issues with mold in schools, headaches for farmers, delayed construction projects and more.
Here’s a look at some of the issues 2018’s record rainfall caused in Centre County:
Flooding disrupts Centre County
Although Centre County was fortunate enough to avoid the sort of catastrophic flooding seen in Milesburg two year ago, swollen creeks and saturated soil made for localized flooding and flash-flooding events across the county throughout the summer and into the fall.
One of the worst-hit areas was Rebersburg on July 25. Miles Township Fire Company Chief Eric Miller said that his company responded to more than 100 service calls that week — mainly for flooded basements.
“As soon as I laid down in my bed, my phone started ringing again,” he said.
Rebersburg is not an area that typically experiences a lot of flooding, Miller said, as the closest creek was about a half-mile away from where the worst flooding was.
All 52 members of the fire company worked around the clock that week, even taking time off work, with help from crews from nearby Gregg Township and Millheim fire companies.
“That never happens up there, but it usually happens here, and everyone comes and helps us,” Gregg Township fire Chief Scott Breon said. “Guys loaded up their personal pickups with hoses and pumps and just went to work.”
From July 21-Aug. 3, 10.15 inches of rain were recorded at the NWS’s State College Station, compared with the normal 1.62 for that time period, according to AccuWeather senior meteorologist Paul Pastelok.
By Aug. 3, most major creeks and streams in Centre County had swollen beyond their brink, and flash-flooding broke out across the county.
Spring Creek in Houserville got up to its third-highest level since 1990, according to NWS, spilling out into the park and onto Puddintown Road, which was closed for most of the morning and early afternoon.
Alpha Fire Company also had to reduce East College Avenue to a single lane in each direction as water spilled onto the road around Your Building Center.
In Bellefonte, Spring Creek rushed through Talleyrand Park, spilling over the creek beds and making the pedestrian bridge impassable as the entire South Water Street side of the park was completely underwater.
The Bald Eagle Creek also flooded, submerging portions of Old Route 220 between Julian and Unionville, and causing Milesburg residents to spend their afternoons and evenings pumping out their basements.
Flooding hit the county again on Sept. 10, when Tropical Storm Gordon brought more rain to the area, causing road restrictions, evacuations and even school closings.
Philipsburg-Osceola School District canceled class for all schools, and several businesses closed for the day due to the flooded roadways. School was also delayed the next day.
John Huber, with Reliance Fire Company, said that in about 24 hours, the Philipsburg fire departments responded to 45 calls for service — including flooded basements, flooded roadways and stranded vehicles.
Parts of Osceola-Mills were under a local emergency, as the residents in the Curtin Park community were encouraged to evacuate. The Red Cross came in from DuBois and set up a shelter at the Columbia Fire Station.
Some Milesburg residents, including those in Eagle Valley Nursing Home, also evacuated, as Bald Eagle Creek rose to at least 2 feet above its flood stage and a state of emergency was declared for the borough, and people were encouraged to stay off the roads.
After the rain from Gordon, members of the Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came to Howard to monitor Foster Joseph Sayers Dam, which was releasing enough water to fill Olympic-sized swimming pools per minute.
With more rain expected, officials were preparing for the highest water levels seen since Hurricane Agnes brought catastrophic flooding to the area in 1972.
Fortunately, the water receded without incident.
Floodwaters damage roads
Once the flooding subsided, it left behind debris and damage to roadways.
Although Penns Valley residents were, for the most part, able to avoid flooded basements, they did have to deal with flooded roadways.
“We had Penns Creek closed for about three days due to flooding, and the same with Sinking Creek Road,” Breon said. “It got pretty bad there for awhile. There were a lot of debris, and this year there was a lot of roadway damage because it washed out the base of the road.”
The pavement on Penns Cave Road buckled, and Penns Creek washed away the berm along Sinking Creek Road, causing the road to collapse.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation was was called in to repair both Penns Creek and Sinkng Creek roads.
“This year, we had a little more damage than we normally do to roadways, but as far as the residences go, we were very fortunate,” Breon said.
In mid-September, PennDOT was estimating more than $105 million in damages statewide to state-maintained roads and bridges, said Marla Fannin, a spokesperson for District 2.
Some of the major flood-related issues PennDOT responded to in Centre County, Fannin said, were channel cleaning on the Steel Hollow Bridge in Huston Township, excessive flooding and closure on state Route 53 in Philipsburg, and a slide condition subsequent closure on state Route 3032/Beaver Road outside of Julian.
“We had a Centre County crew that worked diligently to make repairs and stabilize the hillside on Route 3032 to get the road re-opened within a few days,” Fannin said in an email.
In order to perform the work that addressed immediate issues of public safety, Fannin said, obtaining emergency permits also became a regular occurrence.
Although a cost estimate is not yet known, the materials PennDOT needed throughout the wet summer and into the fall included: rock lining: 2,789 tons; aggregate: 760 tons; blacktop: 138 tons; 12-inch pipe: 180 feet; 18-inch pipe: 45 feet; 26-inch pipe; 220 feet.
Boil water advisory issued
For nearly three weeks in August, customers of Rock Springs Water Authority in Ferguson Township were under a boil water advisory.
The water company issued the advisory after excessive rainfall and localized flooding on Aug. 3 caused a significant portion of the well’s infrastructure to become submerged.
Rock Springs notified the state Department of Environmental Protection, which advised the privately owned water company to chlorinate the well and issue a boil water advisory until two consecutive raw water samples test negative for E. coli and total coliform bacteria.
Customers were advised to boil all drinking water for at least a minute until further notice.
In an email update on Aug. 16, the DEP told the Centre Daily Times that it had been sending staff members to Rock Springs at least twice a week since the advisory was issued to check on the water situation.
The advisory was finally lifted on Aug. 23.
Rain, humidity spur mold growth
The combination of increased moisture and high humidity over the summer created the ideal environment for mold to grow.
John Heebner, a safety manager, estimator and building inspector for Pleasant Gap-based Penoco, said his company received about a 50-60 percent increase in calls for air testing and initial inspection for mold remediation this year.
“We were very busy,” he said.
Those clients included businesses of all sizes, personal residences and school districts. At least three Centre County school districts — Bald Eagle Area, State College and Bellefonte — had buildings affected by mold.
Benner Elementary, in the Bellefonte school district, was the most recently affected, closing its building on Sept. 17 after a routine test indicated poor air quality.
Mold was found in the basement of BEA’s Howard Elementary School on Sept. 4. The students spent the next couple days at nearby Wingate Elementary until the air quality tests came back OK after cleanup and mitigation.
The mold found in SCASD’s Corl Street and Radio Park elementary schools and Mount Nittany Middle School was discovered right before the school year was set to begin.
Unfortunately for students wishing to extend their summer break, the mold was cleared and the air quality back to normal in time for classes to begin on time.
To remove the mold, Superintendent Bob O’Donnell said an independent contractor dehumidified the building, cleaned the surfaces with an antimicrobial gel and purified the environment with industrial air scrubbers.
When testing for molds, the most common ones Heebner’s company come upon are aspergillus-penicillium — one of the most common indoor mold spores — and cladosporium, which is one of the most commonly identified outdoor fungi.
Neither of those molds are toxic, but are allergenic, he said. Mold affects different people to varying degrees, and the possible affects of headaches, coughing and rashes can be worse for those with weakened immune systems or asthma.
Mold spores are always present and can be brought into the home through open windows or doors and on clothing, regardless of the weather. But if the humidity is above 55 percent, Heebner said, that creates the perfect environment for growth.
To keep mold from growing, Heebner encourages people to run an air conditioner when temperatures start to get above 70 degrees, use a dehumidifier in the basement and fans to keep air moving throughout the building or home.
Headaches for fall sports fans
This was a frustrating fall season for local sports teams and fans, as the seemingly endless rainfall caused parking issues at Penn State football games, cancellations of high school games, and delays on Bellefonte’s football stadium construction.
Beaver Stadium parking was restricted due to wet lot conditions for four out of seven home Penn State football games.
Ahead of its final game of the season, against Maryland, Penn State announced that the University Park campus received 11.5 inches of snow the previous week, and had received 17.45 inches of precipitation since Sept. 1.
Those “continued historic wet conditions” resulted in “significant damage” to the grass RV lots used for home football games.
By the final home game, all grassy lots, including the overnight RV lot, were closed. Penn State said the closures were for the fans’ safety, and to preserve the intramural and ag fields.
Overflow parking was sent to the Nittany Mall, the Penn State Golf Courses, Tech Support, Mount Nittany Elementary/Middle Schools, Red A lot, Innovation Park, downtown and Penn State parking garages and the Grange fairgrounds.
The rain also caused headaches for high school athletes, as poor field conditions forced teams to cancel or postpone games throughout the season.
The Mid Penn Conference, which State College plays in, voted to cancel its postseason tournament for boys and girls soccer and field hockey, as teams were so far behind on their regular schedules.
Bellefonte football was without its home stadium for all but the last game of its season as the rain kept pushing back the construction timeline for the $7 million renovation project.
After an early discrepancy with the site work contractor initially set the Rogers Stadium project back in July, the contractors were unable to get enough consecutive dry days — even working weekends and extended hours — for the leveling and other work they needed to do to make up for lost time.
“One of the problems you have on a project like this is that it can rain like it has been — with these huge downpours — and then you have to wait two to three days for the place to dry out before you can get back to work again,” said project manager Dave Stezin, of Reynolds Construction.
Delays in construction projects
In addition to the issues it caused with Rogers Stadium, the rain caused problems for local construction, building and landscaping contractors throughout the prime construction season, eating up working days and pushing pack project timelines.
In the State College Area School District, contractors working on the district’s elementary and high school projects worked especially hard at the very end of the summer to get everything done just in time for teachers and students to move in.
At Radio Park Elementary, work came down to the wire, with some teachers unable to move into their new classrooms until the Friday before the first week of school was set to begin that Monday.
“We were at Radio Park still at 5:30 Friday night wrapping things up. That was a little too close for comfort,” Director of Physical Plant Ed Poprik said. “It was by the skin of our teeth, but we got it done.”
The completion of the Valley Vista left turn lane project, a major construction project in Patton Township, has been delayed until the spring because of the rain.
“The extremely wet weather of the past (six) months necessitated additional excavation work and stone backfill, and the relocation of a gas main, to achieve a stable base for the roadway widening,” a press release from the township said.
The work zone barricades and traffic cones will remain in place over the winter.
The record rainfall over the summer also caused headaches for PennDOT.
“Construction season was also greatly impacted with high water slowing or stopping progress on a variety of bridge projects across our nine-county area,” Fannin said. “Rain also made it impossible to conduct roadway line painting, as well as paving.”
Rain made for a difficult growing season
Although the full environmental and financial impacts of last summer’s rainy growing season on individual farmers, the overall agricultural industry and the success of next season’s crops has yet to be fully realized, one thing is certain — it was a tough summer for farmers.
Sarah Walter, executive director of the Centre County Farmland Trust, said she heard “total exasperation” from all the farmers she dealt with this past summer and fall.
“A lot of farms really depend on the income from that season, so there’s not a lot of buffer. There’s a very narrow profit margin ... and you kind of need those crops to be able to make it the next year,” she said. “So that’s what I’ve heard, that’s it’s already a financial strain. I don’t think we can know yet the impacts totally, but I know that people are feeling it and it’s something that will have repercussions for I would imagine some time.”
Corey Sweeley owns Hidden Branch Farms in Millheim, alongside his wife. Even though he’s only been out on his own for two years, he has eight years of prior experience working at Patchwork Farm in Aaronsburg, where he still helps out part time.
Sweeley said that the season started off well — until July, just when the garlic was about ready to come out.
“The garlic kind of sat in that for two weeks. I think it actually flooded there a good bit for some people, so we lost probably about 40 percent of the garlic crop. But I used that to reseed for this year,” he said.
In addition to the garlic, Sweeley said it was also a bad year for onions, which didn’t store for very long because of all the moisture they were holding.
He said he saw poor germination with dry seeded vegetables like the turnips, carrots, radishes and green beans, and his tomatoes went downhill quickly due to disease.
“As soon as the fruits would get ready, they would split,” he said.
Peppers, eggplant and okra, Sweeley said, didn’t seem as affected by the rain, but did produce smaller yields. He was getting one or two bell peppers on a plant, where he’d usually see eight-10.
Sweeley also said that in his 10 years of farming experience, the bugs — particularly cabbage loopers and cabbage worms — were the worst he has ever seen.
“It was unbelievable how many little green worms there were,” he said.
Although he only has two years of market data, Sweeley said, his sales were easily down at least 30 percent at both the Millheim Farmers Market and at the Susquehanna Valley Growers Market in Lewisburg.
This was Sweeley’s first year selling at the downtown State College farmer’s market, but he said that out of about 28 or 30 market days he attended there this year, there were only four where it didn’t rain.
The most difficult time so far, Sweeley said, has been the fall.
He had just finished reseeding his garlic at the end of November, and knows other farmers who typically grow an acre of garlic who hadn’t yet planted a clove. For the first time, he laid plastic down on the ground to plant the garlic on top of in hopes of keeping some of the water out. But he had to wait until the field was dry enough to get his tractor in to lay the plastic first.
“It’s just a tossup,” Sweeley said of trying to come up with ways to deal with the increased moisture.
One thing that hasn’t yet been measured is how much the erosion from all the rain affected the soil fertility for future crops, Walter said.
“It’s impossible to measure what was really lost,” she said.
West Nile virus cases on the rise
Pennsylvania this summer saw a spike in positive samples of West Nile Virus, which has also translated to some birds, horses and humans, as reported by the CDT’s freelance outdoors columnist Mark Nale.
“There have been more positive West Nile virus samples from mosquitoes this year, 4,609, than any other year since DEP started keeping track in 2000,” Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Press Secretary Neil Shader told Nale in October. “The wet weather, especially with the periodic flooding in various parts of the state, has created excellent conditions for mosquito populations and higher prevalence of WNV as a result.”
At least two human deaths — one in Lancaster and one in Lebanon counties — were attributed to West Nile this year in Pennsylvania
As of Oct. 5, 46 mosquitoes, 13 birds, four horses and two humans had tested positive for West Nile virus. And that number was increasing almost daily.
Centre Wildlife Care in Port Matilda had tested positive samples in multiple crows, one broad-winged hawk, one red-tailed hawk, and one great horned owl.
“We continue to treat sick birds, and we have had some success, but all of the crows have died,” Centre Wildlife Care rehabilitator Robyn Graboski said in October. “Unfortunately, the crows were just too far gone when they were brought in for us to save.”