a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Sunday, November 7, 2010

This history-making flood was not breaking news

The Monongahela River was rising like never before in 1985, spilling into such places as West Brownsville, Pa., above, while many were unaware of the problem until it was too late. Jim McNutt  Observer-Reporter

By Scott Beveridge

It's hard to recall how the word first slipped into the office at the small Monongahela newspaper where I worked 25 years ago the nearby river that shares the city's name was spilling its banks.

But having grown up on along the Mon in nearby Webster, Pa., I was a born-and-raised river watcher and dropped everything at my artist desk at the Daily-Herald as soon as I heard there was a flood and walked two blocks to check the river.

The crowd was growing beside the riverside stage known as the Noble J. Dick Aquatorium, where the river was raging at a speed and running a deep mud color that I had never before witnessed.

I counted down the steps to the stage that mid-afternoon on Nov. 5, 1985, to gauge how fast the water might be rising because I knew I would soon return.

Back at the paper where I produced advertisements, the handful of newsroom workers ignored my anxieties about the river. An hour later I returned to the aquatorium only to be shocked at discovering the river was rising at an unprecedented speed without warning.

In short order the water was rising, too, in the basement of the newspaper offices in the 400  block of West Main Street.

When it reached a step or two away from spilling into the newsroom, I announced my departure while the editor focused on her gossip column and the few reporters hacked away at their computers, otherwise uninterested in the flood.

It took me two hours to make what would have been a 10-minute drive home on a good day. Luckily I managed to get out of Monongahela moments before Pigeon Creek overflowed there onto Route 88.

Every low-lying road leading into Webster was underwater. Not knowing how much higher the river would swell, I parked my 1974 Plymouth Valiant high on a hill and walked to our house situated far enough away from the river that it would make it through the night without damages.

However, at one entrance to the village a pregnant neighbor had gone into labor and was being delivered by rowboat across Webster Hollow Road to an ambulance. All of the houses close to the river were underwater.

It was too late by then for most homeowners to do much to save their belongings. All they could do was wait for the water to recede and begin cleaning up the mess.

The Daily-Herald's coverage of the worst flood on record in the upper and middle Mon River would be sketchy.

Even more pathetic, one of its reporters never left her desk to check on the river and, when she went to leave, found her car submerged under 3 feet of water in the lot across the street from the newspaper.

It should not have come as surprise that the newspaper would close four months later when purchased by the Observer-Reporter.


Anonymous said...

Scott, wonderful account of the flood and the newspaper's "coverage" of the story.


Elder Dragon said...

The Daily-Herald, Brings back some memories. My Dad sent me clippings about the flood as I was stationed at Fort Polk LA. That was one of the few times my Dad ever wrote to me. Thanks for the memories.