U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Johnstown Area Heritage Association

On May 31, 1889 the South Fork dam in Cambria County failed, sending a flood wave through Johnstown that killed 2,209 people.

After a month of rain, a particularly heavy storm hit Johnstown on May 30, filling the streets with a couple feet of water by noon the next day. Flooding was nothing new, though: The city was built on a floodplain, at the base of mountains denuded by industry, at the confluence of three rivers. So people moved to their upper floors to wait.

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The Allegheny River remains frozen, and there is still ice on the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers, though barge traffic is getting through. Now, with rain forecast for the next couple of days the concern turns to flooding.

“There’s always a threat of flooding, particularly when you have ice and when it starts to move it can jam up in narrow valleys or behind bridges and cause water to rise behind the jam very quickly,” said Lewis Kwett, hydraulic engineer with the Pittsburgh division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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With Pittsburgh being plunged into arctic temperatures for much of February, the rivers have seen more ice than usual. Pittsburgh’s ports and waterways are among the largest inland ports in the country – so the slowdowns caused by the ice are causing some ripple effects. Locks on the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers are still operating – though the ice is slowing traffic.

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to continue with several projects in the Pittsburgh region, thanks to the inclusion of $225.5 million dollars in President Obama’s proposed Fiscal Year 2016 budget.

“It’s about a 30-35 percent increase over 2015,” said Lenna Hawkins, deputy district engineer for the Corps’ Pittsburgh district. “It’ll do quite a bit for us as far as getting some major construction projects moving along.” 

If approved, it will go to two such projects.

The long-delayed Lower Monongahela River Project to replace aging locks and dams is inching forward as funding becomes available, with a new $58.6 million dollar contract awarded to Joseph B. Fay Company to begin construction of a new lock wall near Charleroi.

The four-year contract will include building six reinforced concrete monoliths that will become part of the 260 foot by 35 foot wall. The new wall will be the center divider between two lock chambers that will eventually replace the current locks.

After a sharp cut this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District has received $176.3 million in new federal funding for the 2015 fiscal year.

“It’s more than we received last year, it’s pretty much standard for what we received in the past few years,” spokesman Dan Jones said. “But last year was just an anomaly.” The Corps received approximately $110 million for fiscal year 2013-14.

The National Weather Service is calling for temperatures to reach the low 50s this week, meaning the possibility of a lot of melted snow and ice — and floods.

Werner Loehlein, the chief of the water management for the Pittsburgh Army Corps of Engineers, said the Corps always worries about substantial snow and river ice when the temperature rises.

However, he said the latest forecast from the National Weather Service appears to show that Pittsburgh is safe from flooding.

The subzero temperatures this week brought not only frostbitten fingers and high heating bills, but a major ice jam along the Allegheny River.

Now, another shift in weather is expected to send the blockage downstream.

The quarter mile long buildup is thought to be 5-to-6-feet high and is located just upriver from New Kensington’s Ninth Street Bridge.

The National Weather Service is predicting mild rainfall this weekend and temperatures are expected to exceed 50 degrees.