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?


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.
 

 


In his role as Pittsburgh’s public safety director, Wendell Hissrich coordinates the city’s police, fire and emergency response teams, as well as dealing with numerous other planning and security issues | photo by Renee Rosensteel 
 

My father remembered that one,” says Wendell Hissrich. It’s a rainy April morning, and the firefighter’s son has plenty on his mind: The region’s hills are giving way beneath the weight of so much water. Route 30 is a rubbish pile. And warmer weather is coming, which means summer storms and large groups of people gathering outside. Hissrich worries about all this and more. As Pittsburgh’s public safety director, it’s his job to prepare for — and attempt to prevent — the next catastrophe.

So what keeps him up at night?

“Usually, I don’t sleep,” he says. He’s not kidding — this morning, he’s been up since 3 a.m. at the site of a Hill District fire. Hissrich coordinates the city’s police, fire and emergency response teams; oversees planning and security for massive public events; and serves as the city’s liaison to the Region 13 Task Force — a 13-county, intergovernmental agency created to share and deploy the region’s emergency-response assets.

 A 25-year veteran of the FBI, Hissrich has searched for weapons of mass destruction in Afghanistan, supervised political conventions and Super Bowls, and even protected the pope. He’s the kind of guy you’d want nearby when your cell phone, say, suddenly warns of inbound greetings from Pyongyang. But even he admits his profession’s limits.

“Nine times out of 10, disasters don’t happen exactly how you plan for them,” he says. “You can’t really prepare for specific incidents, but you can prepare for something general — whether it’s a high-rise fire or a flood in a particular area. So that’s what we try to do.”
 


The Robinson Township Swiftwater Rescue Team and other agencies complete a training exercise on the Youghiogheny River | photo by Renee Rosensteel 
 

The city’s preparedness efforts span every type of disaster, says Hissrich. In an abandoned hospital, first responders train for active shooter situations. Ahead of storms, swift-water teams race to flood zones. During marches and parades, officers watch from high vantage points (to stop a Las Vegas-style massacre) and move snowplows into the streets (to stop a Toronto-style van attack). And that’s not to mention the city’s bomb squads, its urban search-and-rescue team, or its more mysterious training operations — in July, for example, Pittsburghers looked up to see military choppers buzzing the triangle.

“Obviously, we can’t cover everything 100 percent,” says Hissrich. “But I think for the most part, we’re set up to handle large incidents.”

Even something as large as the St. Patrick’s Day Flood?

Hissrich hesitates. “Anything can happen,” he says. “At the same time, it’s not the 1930s anymore. Help is coming in one or two days.”

 


photo by dave hallewell/hi-fi fotos

 

Pittsburgh is a city of bridges and bottlenecks, tunnels and one-way streets. If disaster strikes without warning, most of us are probably stuck here. And for those one or two days, we’d be largely on our own.

Then what?

Steven Harris chuckles. “The majority of the population are helpless sheep,” he says. “They have no clue.”

The founder and former director of the Pittsburgh Preparedness Group, Harris is one of America’s foremost “preppers” — hardcore survivalists who take disaster preparedness to the extreme. Though the movement swelled after 9/11, attracting conspiracists, religious fanatics and gun hoarders, its popularity has dwindled in recent years; most Pittsburgh-area prepping groups are now inactive or defunct (Harris himself has since moved to Michigan). Those still at it are the die-hards — people who, like Harris, seem less motivated by paranoia than by a genuine desire to weather the worst of what the world might throw at them and to help others do the same.

“The focus of preparedness is this: Everything you have is now gone,” he says. “The disaster doesn’t matter. Whether it’s a flood or a plague or a nuclear attack, the real destruction is the loss of infrastructure. Losing your power, water and sewage takes you back to about 1860.”

I called Harris, a private preparedness consultant who also offers online classes, to ask how the average Pittsburgher should prepare for the end of the world. The Department of Homeland Security’s planning website, ready.gov, recommends that every household stock at least three days’ worth of food, medicine and water — not to mention batteries, a hand-crank radio, duct tape, dust masks, whistles, bleach and more. These are the basics, but according to a 2016 survey by Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, nearly two-thirds of American households lack even rudimentary disaster supplies.

Mine is one of them. As I list my meager provisions, Harris stops me.

“Where are you going to go number two?” he asks. “Are you going to go squat down in your yard?”

It’s a question for which I’m admittedly unprepared. This, says Harris, illustrates a grim truth about disasters: When the number two hits the fan, most of us — no matter how well stocked we are — won’t have the slightest idea what to do. What the Lisoviches saw in Hawaii bears this theory out: Parents abandoning kids. Cars speeding through red lights. Instant societal breakdown. And all this for a false alarm that lasted just 38 minutes.

“Why don’t I come over to your place and turn off the power for a week?” asks Harris. “I’ll sit there with a clipboard and a camera and I won’t say a word. And we’ll see how well you do. What’s the first thing you do when the power fails?”

Embarrassed, I tell him I don’t know.

Harris scoffs. He’s talking to a helpless sheep. “You eat the ice cream out of the freezer.”
 

 


Beth Butler stands at the site of her former home, which was swept away by a landslide in February | photo by Renee Rosensteel 
 

Of course, not all disasters are the sort of blockbuster cataclysms that drive us to build bunkers. While biblical floods and apocalyptic push notifications tend to command our collective attention, the truth is that slower-moving calamities such as climate change, aging infrastructure and widening inequality pose a far greater threat than tornadoes or terror attacks. Confronting them requires political will rather than personal hoarding — a fact Americans seem to insist on learning the hard way.

Still, sudden catastrophes happen. And when they do, you could find yourself in worse places than Pittsburgh. When Hissrich’s office launched this year’s Community Emergency Response Teams program — a 7-week course that trains volunteers to assist their neighbors in a disaster — it filled to capacity, signaling Pittsburghers’ willingness to look out for one another. In February, when a landslide devoured the Duquesne Heights home of Beth Butler, she and her husband faced a total loss — the damage would not be covered by insurance. But friends, neighbors and “people we didn’t even know” stepped in to help, Butler says, and her colleagues at UPMC Mercy raised more than $61,000 to help the couple recover.

Whether Pittsburgh will sustain such generosity in the event of a mass disaster remains an open question. But in the wake of the St. Patrick’s Day Flood, reporters for the Pittsburgh Press found plenty of reasons to hope: Department store owners had given away their goods. Grocers had given away their food. And to conserve what little potable water the city had left, residents bravely drank beer instead.

“Light-hearted, bewildered, a little frightened, gay, or even glowingly lubricated, Pittsburghers last night had something about them they never had before…” wrote one correspondent. “If you had asked for volunteers for a dangerous job that was for the good of the city, you would have had every man and woman in the city under your banner. Pittsburgh was ready to go to work — shoulder to shoulder.”  


 

Be Prepared


PHOTO BY RENEE ROSENSTEEL 
 

According to the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, nearly two-thirds of American households lack adequate disaster plans and supplies. Websites such as ready.gov
offer planning templates and survival tips, but building a preparedness kit can be tricky — and expensive. 

Federal agencies recommend stocking at least three days’ worth of nonperishable food, medication and clean water for each person and pet in your home. It’s also critical to consider clothing, sleeping bags and transportation, should a disaster require you to flee. Books and board games will help pass the time during the apocalypse, and don’t forget your can opener — you’ll want to actually eat that nonperishable food.

According to some in the prepper community, however, such kits aren’t nearly enough. “The whole notion of a three-day kit is beyond [expletive],” says Steven Harris, whose website, Steven1234.com, lists nearly 500 recommended disaster supplies. “People just don’t realize how vulnerable they are,” he says. “But it’s very easy to be prepared. It just takes a little bit of learning. A little bit of time. And a little bit of extra thinking.”

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