When Heavy Rain, Erosion and Gravity Cause the Earth to Give Way

Workers walk stand along a roadway that was shut due to a landslide in Pittsburgh's Duquesne Heights neighborhood in February.

Workers walk stand along a roadway that was shut due to a landslide in Pittsburgh's Duquesne Heights neighborhood in February. Keith Srakocic / AP File Photo

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Checking out some of Pittsburgh’s landslide-damaged roads.

PITTSBURGH — As weather forecasters and emergency managers along the East Coast turn their attention to Hurricane Florence, the remnants of Tropical Storm Gordon, which came ashore last week near the Alabama-Mississippi border, continued to soak western Pennsylvania on Monday after an especially rainy weekend. The National Weather Service reported that upwards of 7 inches of rain fell over the course of 72 hours in some parts of Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located.

Pittsburgh is among the cities in the eastern part of the U.S. that has seen incredible amounts of rainfall in recent months. In fact the city hit its average annual rainfall total this weekend.

In the mountainous areas like western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, heavy rainfall is not just a hassle, but can lead to problems exacerbated by the region’s constrained topography. That includes landslides, which can damage roads, buildings and other infrastructure like water and sewer pipes and gas pipelines.

Following an early morning gas pipeline explosion on Monday in Beaver County, northwest of Pittsburgh, officials say an initial site assessment indicates there was a landslide in the vicinity, according to StateImpact Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh is no stranger to incidents where water saturated slopes can unexpectedly give way—taking along aging infrastructure. Heavy winter and spring rains earlier this year caused a handful of landslides that prompted local officials to close damaged streets.

One of them is Diana Street, part of which is perched on a steep slope on the city’s North Side. The slumping section of the pavement is hard to miss.

Part of Diana Street in Pittsburgh gave way earlier this year. (Photo by Michael Grass / Route Fifty)

While Route Fifty was able to check out the Diana Street landslide first hand this weekend, William Street, a narrow road that clings to the side of Mount Washington, is far more difficult to access. That’s because a large portion of the roadway no long exists after the steep slope gave way.

The best way to check out William Street in Pittsburgh, which was closed after landslides earlier this year, is on Google Street View.

Repairing a landslide-damaged street isn’t easy, nor is it cheap. As the Tribune-Review reported on Friday:

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto in July added $1.5 million to a landslide budget to address slide damage on Greenleaf Street in Duquesne Heights, Swinburne Street in South Oakland, Advent Street in Elliot and List Street and Diana streets in Spring Hill. Ricks said the city would spend up to $3 million before year’s end on slide repairs.

In the meantime, more rain is in the forecast.

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Seattle. 

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