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Fear lingers in PA valleys

Residents in Pennsylvania's Chartiers Valley lost their sense of security to Hurricane Ivan 17 months ago.

BY SUSAN KIM | CARNEGIE, PA | February 24, 2006

"The expense of recovery is huge."

—Ken LaSota

Residents in Pennsylvania's Chartiers Valley lost their sense of security to Hurricane Ivan 17 months ago.

Heidelberg Mayor Ken LaSota said his town is still trying to recover both emotionally and economically. "Many of the people who were flooded were original residents of the town," he said. "Heidelberg grew as a town around the creek. For many, a sense of security was lost as the only town that they have known - a place that had been home, business and livelihood - is for many now a place of potential flooding, fear and economic displacement."

Many of the townspeople feel like they've lost their 'safe harbor,' LaSota said, "and I am hard pressed to help them over this fear."

Coupled with the emotional fallout, physical flood-related needs are still highly evident throughout the area. "We're still rebuilding homes that were affected by Ivan," explained Pastor Andrew Clark, executive director of Adventist Community Services (ACS) of Greater Pittsburgh. "We've got a full spectrum - from porches that need to be rebuilt to siding that needs to be replaced. We have a lot of roof damage. And just recently we've been going into a lot of homes and finding fire hazards related to electrical issues."

ACS works within the Greater Chartiers Valley Long-Term Recovery Team, and Clark said there are currently 238 households with flood-related needs. "Out of that 238, we're looking at approximately 97 with home repair issues. The rest are commodities like washers or refrigerators."

Nearly a year-and-a-half after Hurricane Ivan struck, responders have tackled a tremendous load given the size of the community, Clark said. "Our agency alone has worked with 932 households."

LaSota, Clark and others agreed that runoff from development was a major factor in increasing the damage from Ivan.

"We have mass building on the hills where they're clear-cutting trees," said Clark. "The flooding hit the houses at the bottom of the hills. There are two homes where the house is holding up the hill and the hill is holding up the house. It's incredibly dangerous. Unfortunately people are still living in these homes. A lot of the flood damage is man-made with the shopping centers and pavement increasing the runoff."

As development occurs around them, the economic base for towns like Heidelberg has fallen out, said LaSota. "Many of these elderly homeowners are on fixed incomes. The expense of recovery is huge."

Clark, who is based in Carnegie, echoed LaSota. "There's not the solid job base there used to be. We have a lot of elderly people, and people who can't afford to move out. What happened was the flooding was incredibly discriminatory because it hit all the people in the valley."

But a determined optimism seems to keep Clark and others moving forward. "What we hope to do is, if we can economically make a difference in towns like Carnegie, we can show that the metropolitan suburbs are a place to go. We're hoping to empower people to change their community. Because now, here, there is an up-rise, and a lot of interest in white collar jobs."

For now, responders in the area report it's difficult to convince people that flood recovery is not complete. "People are still incredulous that it's been a year and half and we're still getting people back in their homes," said Bruce Nordeen, president of the Greater Chartiers Valley Long-Term Recovery Team. "That's put a damper in raising funds. We have to really work to get money."

The area also desperately needs skilled volunteers, especially electricians, added Nordeen. "Most of the people with flooded homes - their electrical boxes were under water." Many are living with the same inundated boxes without cleaning them or checking them - a fire hazard that increases as time goes by.

Emotions in valley towns can be complex, reflected Father Rick Seiler, pastor at the All Saints Polish National Catholic Church in Carnegie. In small communities, sometimes responders are flood survivors themselves.

Seiler, treasurer of the long-term recovery team, said he vividly remembers trying to convince people to leave their homes so cleanup crews could come in. "There was one lady - she was a former teacher - she was sitting there looking through pictures and old school papers. I said, 'you have to get out of your house.' She said, 'you don't understand. What did you lose?' "

Seiler told her the truth: that he'd lost everything - "my wedding pictures, my ordination pictures, everything. She said, 'well you sit down and we can talk.' A few days later, she did leave."

Seiler lived in three different hotels for five-and-a-half months, and his church is still making repairs. "It's easier to identify with people in the neighborhood. I used to think - hey, it's only your couch, it's only your chair, it's only your stuff. But it was overwhelming. Wait until you see your wedding pictures aren't there anymore. I have photos of 25 years as a priest. I don't have any of them anymore."

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