The end of May brought an unpleasantly familiar scene to many areas of Butler County.
Phones buzzing with weather reports and warnings gave way to a deluge of rain — more than 6 inches in some places. Basements were flooded and streets rendered impassable, with anxious home and business owners left only to watch and hope the damage wasn't too severe.
The situation played out more in recent years, with flooding seemingly worsening with each storm. Mother Nature is surely to blame for some of the issues, with this year's storms setting rainfall records.
However, other factors play into the increasing damage.
Over the past month, Eagle staff investigated not only what is causing these issues, but also what local officials are doing to address the problems. Over the new two weeks, we aim to provide readers with a more in-depth look at the “High Water Mark” issues facing communities throughout Butler County.
Today's focus: Zelienople.
Next week: Harmony and the county perspective.
ZELIENOPLE — Heavy rains soaked the county this spring and early summer, causing countless headaches for stressed-out property owners living in flood zones.
Zelienople residents like Dan Karns consider their neighborhood the borough's “bathtub.”
Located at the lower end of Pine Street near Front Street, Karns said the backyards of his neighbors on the south side of Pine Street fill up during heavy rain. The neighborhood's backyards parallel Glade Run, which backs up during downpours at the entrance to the Zelienople-Harmony Sportsmen's Club at the end of Front Street. Waters continue rising unchecked in a sustained rain event and eventually spill into basements and crawl spaces.
While Hurricane Ivan's 2004 rainfall cursed Pine Street with the worst flooding in recent memory, the nearly five-inch deluge of rain on May 28 was a close second, according to residents. A large dumpster remains on the street, brimming with ruined tables, carpeting and various other drenched and swollen household goods awaiting the landfill.
'Now, it's happening twice a year'
Karen Kwiatek and her family have lived in their ranch home atop a crawl space on Pine Street for 36 years.
The Kwiateks were forced to take out a second mortgage to pay the $12,800 bill to refurbish their home after the remnants of Hurricane Ivan left four feet of water in the living area. Other than Ivan's wrath, Kwiatek said in the first several years she lived in the neighborhood, floods rarely occurred.
“Now, it's happening twice a year,” Kwiatek said of how water regularly pours into her crawl space these days. “It's never been that bad.”
She is now in the process of finding a mold remediation company to spray her crawlspace as a result of the May 28 rains. The couple cringe every time the radar shows a good-sized storm headed for Western Pennsylvania.
“It's a constant worry now,” she said.
'Who's going to buy it?'
Robert Pegg's backyard is the first to go under when the “bathtub” begins to fill. The Zelienople man learned the neighborhood was prone to flooding 25 years ago when he closed on his home.
He has had to use the flood insurance he purchased to replace four or five furnaces and countless other items in the past few years alone. His insurance carries a $2,000 deductible on the structure and $2,000 on contents.
Because of the flooding, Pegg doesn't even bother thinking about selling his home.
“Who's going to buy it?” he said.
Pegg believes that borough crews should place a large retention pond in the borough-owned property between his backyard and Glade Run. Although it might not catch all the water in a large rain event, he believes it would at least reduce flooding in the neighborhood.
'There's not an easy solution'
Herb Weiner, who lives next to Karns, said he contacted his flood insurance company after the May 28 flood, but was unhappy with the service it provided.
“All they do is give you problems,” Weiner said. “We don't cover this and we don't cover that.”
Karns said his sump pump runs about 75 percent of the time because the neighborhood sits in a low-lying area. The system siphoned about 26,000 gallons of water from his basement after the May 28 storm alone — and continued kicking on 40 times a day until the water levels fell days later.
Weiner said his and Karns' backyards remained wet and unusable more than a week later, when most properties had dried up and residents could cut their grass. Karns believes the water issues causing the “bathtub” in his neighborhood stem from three situations.
First, water from area housing developments dumps into Glade Run. Second, runoff from Interstate 79 deposits into Glade Run near Zelienople Community Park. And lastly, runoff into Muntz Run on the south side of the Sportsmen's Club eventually cycles through the club's lakes and into Glade Run.
“We have three areas that send water down here,” Karns said.
Karns believes borough officials are responsive to the neighborhood's problems.
“There's not an easy solution,” he said. “I think if we can control the issues upstream, it would control our issues downstream.”
'It's a regional issue'
Don Pepe, Zelienople borough manager, said council is taking steps to help Pine Street residents.
“There's no one golden key to fix this,” Pepe said.
He said borough officials are reviewing a 2015 water management study of the area between Zelienople Community Park and the Sportsmen's Club.
Regarding runoff from I-79, Pepe said when the highway was built in 1969, retention ponds to control runoff were not required as they are now. He said he has contacted state Rep. Jim Marshall, R-14th, as well as state Department of Transportation officials to discuss the installation of retention ponds between the highway and the park.
“It's not a borough issue or a township issue,” Pepe said. “It's a regional issue.”
Although the borough currently has considerable outstanding debt, council recently approved requesting a low-interest loan from the county's infrastructure bank to help the Pine Street neighborhood. Pepe added that officials are also considering a low-interest loan from the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority to build retention facilities for I-79 runoff.
He hopes private property owners and other entities will collaborate with the borough to drain the bathtub. He hopes to alleviate the Pine Street flooding problem as soon as possible, but knows it will take some time.
“There's no question there is going to need to be cooperation,” Pepe said, gazing out at the well-kept homes on Pine Street. “I don't like seeing this happen.”
'We can make this work'
Another neighborhood frequently suffering in heavy or sustained rain is Renfrew in Penn Township, where the Connoquenessing Creek runs along the unincorporated village's south side.
Sheila and Stephen Adams bought their first house at the intersection of Meridian Road and West Main Street in 2015.
They were excited to find a house they could afford that fit their criteria of three bedrooms, no close neighbors, a two-stall garage and located in the South Butler County School District.
The home inspector did not mention the numerous incidents of flooding from the Connoquenessing Creek, which is across a small township-owned field about 100 feet from the house. The previous owner mentioned flooding in the house in 2004 from Hurricane Ivan, but said that was a 100-year flood.
“We were like, 'OK, a 100-year flood,” Sheila Adams said. “We can make this work.”
Since then, mucky water from the creek has poured into their basement three times. On two occasions, the water reached four to six feet, and six inches on the third.
The couple work overtime to pay down debt, but lost numerous power tools, a riding mower they had not yet used and a hot water tank in one of the floods.
The first significant flood filled the furnace with muck and debris, but the couple talked the furnace company worker into fixing it.
“In the second flood, he said, 'Sorry, it's done,'” Sheila Adams said. “We had to buy a new furnace, and we had it mounted to the ceiling.”
She said the first time the basement flooded, she awoke in the morning and entered the bathroom before looking outside.
“The toilet was bubbling,” Sheila Adams said.
Then she went downstairs and heard a sound resembling water shooting from a fire hydrant. A trip to the basement revealed water shooting horizontally through a doorway there.
Three cars Stephen had planned to repair were destroyed in the flood, which inundated the entire nearby one-lane bridge over the Connoquenessing Creek. The cars were insured, but the policies carried a high deductible.
“We were trying so hard to get out of debt and live a different lifestyle,” Sheila Adams said through tears. “We don't take vacations and we don't live extravagantly.”
The couple wants to sell the house, but will not trick or mislead anyone into buying it by not mentioning the flooding.
Regarding flood insurance, the mortgage company had not paid the insurance company the premiums included in the couple's mortgage payments, and a forced-place policy was in place when the big flood occurred in January 2018.
That policy only paid $1,600, and the Adams' home sustained $10,000 in damages.
Since then, Adams, who is a registered nurse, spends a lot of time on the phone with insurance companies, but said she gets the runaround from every company suggested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“Nobody is motivated to help us,” Sheila Adams said. “It's intimidating.”
The couple has expanded their family, having added 10-month-old Adora.
They have no plans to move, but live in fear of another flood.
“We don't know what to do,” Sheila Adams said.