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Penn State students continue to study area’s flooding causes — and solutions

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 6/19/19

You can live outside the 100-year flood plain in Middletown and still be flooded.

The 100-year flood plain covers properties most likely to be affected by flooding from bodies of water that border …

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Penn State students continue to study area’s flooding causes — and solutions

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You can live outside the 100-year flood plain in Middletown and still be flooded.

The 100-year flood plain covers properties most likely to be affected by flooding from bodies of water that border the borough, such as Swatara Creek and the Susquehanna River.

But many other homes and businesses not in the 100-year flood plain have been hit from flooding caused by stormwater — such as on July 23, 2017, when Middletown’s stormwater system was overwhelmed by nearly 5 inches of rain in one hour.

One Wood Street resident told the Press & Journal at the time of seeing the stormwater rushing toward his house like a river that day. He’d seen nothing like it since the flooding from Agnes in 1972.

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Middletown flood damage ordinances topic of meeting; some properties must meet requirements

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Five feet of water poured into the basement of the Woodlayne Court apartment complex at Wood and Wilson streets, knocking out the electrical system and forcing the evacuation of 150 residents.

The July 2017 storm led to a group of Penn State Harrisburg students undertaking research about flooding from stormwater in Middletown and in the surrounding area — and what can be done to reduce or eliminate it.

The project continues, and is about to head into its third academic year.

Findings from the research conducted thus far was presented by the civil engineering students during Penn State Harrisburg’s annual Capstone event held in May.

Middletown borough officials continue to monitor progress of the research. Borough Manager Ken Klinepeter attended the students’ Capstone presentation, said Shirley Clark, a professor of environmental engineering at Penn State Harrisburg who has overseen the research done by the students since the start in 2017.

Clark lives in Middletown and has been a victim of the stormwater flooding.

The students have identified possible solutions involving improvements to the stormwater system in the areas of East Roosevelt Avenue, Oak Hill Park, and elsewhere.

The students cannot implement any proposed solutions themselves, because none of the students are licensed professional engineers, Clark said.

Eventually, the research done by the students could be turned over by the borough to the borough’s consulting engineering firm, HRG.

The students have put together a computer model that maps the stormwater system in Middletown. The model also shows how the system is affected by stormwater coming into the borough from outside Middletown.

“The next step in this project is to calibrate the model so that we can improve our predictions of the system response to actual rain events,” Clark told the Press & Journal in an email.

The students are also looking to install meters to measure the flow of stormwater.

The locations are not set, but Clark expects flow meters to be installed in the western watershed, which includes Penn State Harrisburg and the pipe coming into Middletown near the water treatment plant, and in the eastern watershed around Spruce Street.

A flow meter also likely will be installed around Wood or Emaus streets, to better understand how the system affects the railroad underpass on Wood Street, which was hit hard by the July 2017 deluge.

The students also will add surface features to the model, to better determine the cause or causes behind stormwater flooding in a specific area.

Today’s stormwater flooding is from development that has occurred over time — from 1862 when the region was mostly farmland, said Amin Amin, one of the student researchers during the 2018-19 academic year.

That can’t be undone, and a total fix to replace the entire stormwater system would cost millions.

“They (the borough) don’t have the funding to do that,” Amin said. “We are looking at different solutions, the cheapest way they can fix the problem. They are not going to be able to fix it for a 100-year storm, but they should be able to fix it for the smaller storms.”

But the challenge is daunting. Both the July 23, 2017 incident and the flooding from Tropical Storm Lee that occurred in September 2011 were considered by the experts to be 500-year storms, Clark said.

There is only supposed to be a 1 in 500 chance of these storms occurring in any given year — or a 0.2 percent possibility. Yet the area has been hit with 500-year storms twice within the last eight years.

That’s a sobering reality, Clark said.