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This is Not a Drill: Can Pittsburgh Survive a Disaster?

Location and geography make Pittsburgh one of the safer places to be in a disaster, but just how well would we do in the face of a cataclysmic event?



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photo: shutterstock

 

Of all the ways to die, Mark Lisovich picked a pretty good one. He would wade, he decided, into the warm waters off Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, where he’d stand chest deep with his wife, Donna. Together, they’d hold hands and wait for annihilation, their bodies vaporized in a flash of fire and radiation more than 4,600 miles from their Pittsburgh-area home.

“Boom,” thought Lisovich. “It’ll be over in a second.”

He hadn’t expected to die on vacation. In fact, the morning had started out beautifully. He and Donna woke up early on Saturday, Jan. 13, to stroll Waikiki and watch the waves come in. Then, at 8:07 a.m. local time, they heard the distinctive ping of a smartphone amplified a thousand times over as the entire beach — indeed, the entire state — got the same notification at once: BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

Lisovich’s training kicked in. A firefighter with the Charleroi Fire Department, he tried to stop the hordes from stampeding into hotels — the structures weren’t designed as shelters, and they’d crush the people inside when ordnance came raining down. That’s when he and Donna decided to take to the water. But as the couple said their goodbyes, something caught their attention: the sight of countless children abandoned by their parents.

“They were all over the place, crying, ‘Mommy, daddy, you left me! You left me!’” Lisovich recalls. “The breakdown of society was almost instantaneous.”
 


photo via flickr creative commons

 

Fortunately, the threat turned out to be false, and the Lisoviches flew home unscathed. But in the weeks and months that followed, that morning stuck with them — they’d see a fallout shelter sign, for example, and find themselves wondering what they’d do if something comparable happened here.

What, indeed? In a world that feels ever more calamity-prone — where human error sparks mass chaos and tossing a roll of paper towels passes for disaster relief — what might the unthinkable look like in Pittsburgh? Who is looking out for us? And what would it mean to prepare for the worst?
 
There’s an old joke about asteroids. When the big one heads for Earth, they say, you’d better move to Pittsburgh, where everything hits five years late. The joke was probably funnier before Pittsburgh’s hipster renaissance, but there’s still a grain of truth to it: Disaster-wise, the Steel City is one of the better places to be. Its geography and location keep it relatively insulated from earthquakes and hurricanes, and so far, at least, we’ve been spared a major terror attack.

But Pittsburgh is not immune to cataclysm, whether natural or man-made. In 1845, a fire destroyed a third of the city. In 1948, a toxic smog cloud killed 20 people and sickened another 7,000 in Donora. Several decades later, when United Airlines Flight 93 barreled toward the city on a bright September morning, evacuating Pittsburghers gridlocked the streets for hours.
 


Point State Park | Jan. 13, 2018 | Photo by Richard Cook
 

Then there’s our flood problem. In 2011, four people drowned during a rush-hour deluge on Washington Boulevard. Earlier this year, one person died and more than 60 had to be rescued during a storm in the South Hills. Images of half-submerged river boroughs have become almost commonplace, with echoes of Pittsburgh’s worst catastrophe of all — “a disaster of undreamed proportions that beggared description,” as contemporary newspapers put it.

After a sudden thaw in the spring of 1936, the city’s rivers started to rise. It was gradual at first; newspapers barely mentioned it. But on St. Patrick’s Day, as the first tendrils of muddy water crept into Downtown’s streets, they began to rise ferociously — sometimes as fast as a foot per hour. The rivers crested at an unheard-of 46 feet, swamping parts of Downtown under 20 feet of water. (For comparison, river levels of 16 feet are considered normal Downtown. At 23 feet, the fountain at Point State Park goes under. Thirty-five feet threatens Heinz Field. When the remnants of Hurricane Agnes struck Pittsburgh in 1972, the rivers rose to 35.8 feet, causing $45 million in damage.)

The flood trapped thousands in hotels and high-rises, where they burned banquet tables for warmth. Oil drums exploded in Lawrenceville. Factories burned in Etna. Floating gasoline shot fire from one building to the next, and drowned human bodies swirled in the murk. When the rivers finally receded a week later, at least 62 people had lost their lives. Tens of thousands had lost everything else.
 

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