Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

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?



(page 1 of 3)


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.
 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit Module Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Latest

MultiStories: Three Times a Bust – The German National Bank

The bank was at the center of a corruption scandal which eventually led to an overhaul of Pittsburgh city government.

Matters of the Heart

In a city of eds and meds, it’s to be expected that some couples are going to meet in the medical field. We found some of the best “meet-cutes” from recent Pittsburgh weddings.

At Scene75, Be a Kid (or Bring Your Kids)

The entertainment center in Edgewood is a great time with or without little ones.

Pitt Attaches Old-School Signature to Narduzzi’s Championship Prediction

Thanks to wide receivers recognized for their blocking ability and an offensive line endearingly referred to as “knuckleheads“ –– the Panthers are one win away from making their head coach's bold pre-season prediction a reality.

Pittsburgh Restaurant News: Reduced Hours and a Chef Change

Two Oakland restaurants now have shorter hours and a chef moves from Downtown to Lawrenceville.

What Unites Us In the Wake of the Tree of Life Tragedy

We asked local faith leaders for their response to the massacre at Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill –– and how we can come together and more forward as a community.

Pittsburgh Restaurant Review: Molinaro Ristorante

Ron Molinaro's Downtown restaurant offers high-end Italian dishes made with top-notch ingredients, but is it worth the price premium?

Excellence in Nursing: Meet Our 2018 Honorees

Pittsburgh Magazine highlights the unsung heroes of the health care field: our Excellence in Nursing honorees, chosen by our panel of distinguished judges in the field.

Nursing Shortage in Pittsburgh Calls for Creative Solutions

RetuRN to Practice entices retired nurses back Into the field.

Fine Art Meets High Fashion at the Carnegie International

With the Carnegie International as the backdrop, we feature work by local fashion designer Elaine Healey, who has been morphing from luxury womenswear to a more “non-binary” style.

The 400-Word Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

While Harry Potter diehards will find more than enough sustenance in the sequel, non-devotees may have a rough time following the action.

Pittsburgh's Tomorrow – What We Need in the Future

As the year comes to a close, we look forward to what Pittsburgh can be –– and what we'd like to see change –– in the coming years.

How to Shop Like a Pro for Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh

Our guide to produce, pastries, libations and more will help your table brim with tasty treats from Pittsburgh-area businesses.

Drink Like the French on Beaujolais Nouveau Day

Why and where to celebrate on Thursday, which marks the annual release of the young wine.

‘X’ Marks the Spot for This Wedding Scavenger Hunt

She thought she was going on a simple scavenger hunt. She never dreamed it would end with a wedding.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


Pittsburgh Just Dodged the Amazon Bullet

Pittsburgh Just Dodged the Amazon Bullet

We should be relieved that the tech giant opted not to move in.

Comments

It's Official: Amazon HQ2 is Not Coming to Pittsburgh

It's Official: Amazon HQ2 is Not Coming to Pittsburgh

Instead of one city, the giant retailer is splitting its second headquarters between northern Virginia and New York City.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Pittsburgh Restaurant News: Reduced Hours and a Chef Change

Pittsburgh Restaurant News: Reduced Hours and a Chef Change

Two Oakland restaurants now have shorter hours and a chef moves from Downtown to Lawrenceville.

Comments

How to Shop Like a Pro for Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh

How to Shop Like a Pro for Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh

Our guide to produce, pastries, libations and more will help your table brim with tasty treats from Pittsburgh-area businesses.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Fitness: Five Great Trails to Run in the Fall in Pittsburgh

Fitness: Five Great Trails to Run in the Fall in Pittsburgh

Don’t resign yourself to the gym treadmills just yet – fall is one of the best times of the year to get outside and pound the pavement, surrounded by falling leaves and the possibility of grabbing a hot latte on the way home.

Comments

Love Sourdough? Find the Best There Is at These Five Bake Shops

Love Sourdough? Find the Best There Is at These Five Bake Shops

We dove into the local artisan bread scene to find the best places that bake naturally leavened bread in Pittsburgh.

Comments


At Scene75, Be a Kid (or Bring Your Kids)

At Scene75, Be a Kid (or Bring Your Kids)

The entertainment center in Edgewood is a great time with or without little ones.

Comments

Five Essential November Events in Pittsburgh

Five Essential November Events in Pittsburgh

Avian art, altruistic alt-rock and more November nights.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Pitt Attaches Old-School Signature to Narduzzi’s Championship Prediction

Pitt Attaches Old-School Signature to Narduzzi’s Championship Prediction

Thanks to wide receivers recognized for their blocking ability and an offensive line endearingly referred to as “knuckleheads“ –– the Panthers are one win away from making their head coach's bold pre-season prediction a reality.

Comments

Steelers Have Changed the Narrative in Dramatic Fashion

Steelers Have Changed the Narrative in Dramatic Fashion

A defense that was groping to accomplish the simplest of tasks has started to dominate. The offense has stopped getting in its own way and started exploding scoreboards.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The 400-Word Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

The 400-Word Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

While Harry Potter diehards will find more than enough sustenance in the sequel, non-devotees may have a rough time following the action.

Comments

The 400-Word Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The 400-Word Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Coen Brothers' western anthology is less than the sum of its parts, but it boasts some great tales.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Matters of the Heart

Matters of the Heart

In a city of eds and meds, it’s to be expected that some couples are going to meet in the medical field. We found some of the best “meet-cutes” from recent Pittsburgh weddings.

Comments

‘X’ Marks the Spot for This Wedding Scavenger Hunt

‘X’ Marks the Spot for This Wedding Scavenger Hunt

She thought she was going on a simple scavenger hunt. She never dreamed it would end with a wedding.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Schoolhouse Electric Brings Hip Lighting, Coffee, to Pittsburgh

Schoolhouse Electric Brings Hip Lighting, Coffee, to Pittsburgh

The Portland, Ore-based lighting and furnishings store, which shares space with a high-end coffeehouse from the team behind The Vandal restaurant, is located in East Liberty's Detective Building.

Comments

Own a Piece of the Allegheny County Courthouse With New Gift Line

Own a Piece of the Allegheny County Courthouse With New Gift Line

Wendell August Forge is turning the century-old terracotta roof tiles into a line of collectible itms that include wall hangings and beer flight carriers.

Comments