Two women and two girls were killed on Friday, August 19, in what has been described as an unusual flash flood in the Highland Park neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
Three of the four were a mother and her two daughters. The fourth victim was a 72-year-old from Oakmont. All were on Washington Boulevard near Allegheny River Boulevard when violent thunderstorms hit. Some parts of the road were covered in water as deep as nine feet within minutes. Eleven others had to be rescued from the raging waters.
This was the second time in two months that Washington Boulevard flooded. Officials are working to find ways to avoid the same tragedies again, while many wonder if they could have been avoided in the first place.
Although the storm was considered one of the worst the area has seen in a century, the road's location is a known problem. The area of Washington Boulevard near the higher Allegheny River Boulevard acts like a dam, which collects vast amounts of water quickly when heavy rains strike. The sewers, while they functioned, were not designed to take on that much water in such a short amount of time.
Unfortunately, this Washington Boulevard flash flood tragedy is not the first. Another flash flood killed a woman and injured 12 people on the same road 60 years ago. Her death and continued flooding during the three years following led to studies of the road and plans on how to prevent future occurrences. None took effect. Flooding problems on Washington Boulevard date back to the early 1920s.
"The state takes the position they are responsible for the road surface only and the city claims that they and the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority have a disagreement as to who maintains what. It's not hard to understand why something like this could occur," said Attorney Richard Rosenthal, managing partner of Edgar Snyder & Associates, in an interivew on the flash flood.
Lawsuits against the government are not easy because of what's called 'sovereign immunity.' In Pennsylvania, victims have a limited right to sue the government. If the owner of the storm sewer knew about the problem and had enough time in which to fix it, then it can be found responsible. However, the state limits the amount recoverable from the city and its authorities to $500,000 – for everyone combined. The state can only be sued for $250,000. If an adjacent non-government landowner is found at fault, there is no limit on recovering losses.
Rosenthal adds, "People shouldn't have to die for the roads and storm sewer systems to be fixed, especially when it's not the first time this has happened. Lawsuits do get government action, even if the victims are never fully compensated for their losses. Two potential ideas include installing alarms in the sewer system and raising the road.
For more information on defective roads, visit EdgarSnyder.com.