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PA hit by pre-Isabel flood

A mid-September, pre-Hurricane Isabel flood hit several areas of Chester County, Pa., quickly and with unprecedented effect.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | CHESTER COUNTY, Pa. | October 13, 2003

"It happened very, very quickly. In just a matter of minutes, the whole place was flooded."

—Rev. Msgr. Frank Depman

A mid-September, pre-Hurricane Isabel flood hit several areas of Chester County, Pa., quickly and with unprecedented effect. It caused serious damage in areas that have a history of flooding in times of heavy rain.

The residential area hit the hardest the Avondale Apartments has been flooded out three other times in the last decade, said the Rev. Msgr. Frank Depman, the chaplain of the Mision Santa Maria Madre de Dios, a Catholic relief organization that helps primarily Latino families in a five-parish area of Chester County. More than 200 people had to be evacuated from the building in the fourth flood, which hit Sept. 15.

This was the same flood-blamed by meteorologists on Hurricane Henri and up to 11 inches of rain-that caused flooding along the Red and White Clay creeks, and was responsible for massive residential damage in the communities of Glenville and Marshallton, Del. And just like the flooding in Delaware, the rising water came unbelievably fast and rose higher than anyone had ever seen.

"It happened very, very quickly. In just a matter of minutes, the whole place was flooded," Depman said. "It was completely unexpected. Sometimes you have a little bit of warning."

The Avondale Apartment building was shut down for a week - hardly surprising, considering that water reached nearly to the ceiling on the first floor.

The second and third floors of the building have been repopulated, but the first floor received so much damage, Depman said, that 15 families who lived there won't be able to return for at least another month or two.

This wasn't the only place in Chester County to get hit by the flooding, he said. Downingtown further to the north also got slammed. And Kennett Square, home of several mushroom-growing companies, was also hit.

The Avondale Apartments, however, have been hit every time the White Clay Creek has flooded, but there has apparently been no move on the part of the property owner to tear down or elevate the building, Depman said.

Depman thinks change would only come about because of a lawsuit filed by the borough of Avondale, but he's pretty sure the borough lacks both the money and the political will to pull that off.

In the meantime, while the building owner is reimbursed for structural damage (the owner has flood insurance), the displaced tenants struggle to survive, now that all their possessions have been destroyed.

"They lost everything," Depman said. "I mean there was nothing left that was usable."

Mision Santa Maria, he said, has been providing the same services it provides year-round - food and furniture, as well as advocacy for local Latinos to local governments as well as foreign consulates.

"A lot of times when people come in here they have almost nothing," he said. And that is certainly the case with the people displaced from the Avondale Apartments.

Beyond that, the charity will also help needy clients pay the deposit on a new apartment and even work to find them an apartment, which can be quite a challenge in Chester County, Depman said.

"An apartment is extremely difficult to find," he said. "Housing is really scarce. That's why you find a lot of overcrowding."

Depman's workers have also been providing bus transportation for the flood survivors, including twice-weekly trips to the Federal Emergency Management Agency that is a 40-minute drive from Avondale.

Depman is glad that most of the people in the apartment complex are back in their homes, after having spent time in am American Red Cross shelter, followed by nights in hotel rooms in Newark, Del. (also paid for by the Red Cross).

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