That’s when she noticed flashing lights through her window. Nudging aside the curtain, she saw people on her sidewalk stretching yellow tape in front of her house. The tape warned: “POLICE LINE -- DO NOT CROSS.”
“I stuck my head out the door and people started yelling at me to get my shoes on and come outside,” Elizabeth recalled. “When I stepped out, all I saw was a big hole in front of my house. It went down all the way to the foundation. I yelled ‘Oh my God!’ and freaked out.”
A sinkhole, 16 feet deep and 10 feet wide, suddenly had opened in front of her house, yawning like a mouth big enough to swallow a car. The sinkhole was one of three that undermined houses on her block during the rain storm on October 11, forcing the evacuation of nine families, according to town officials.
Sink holes are an example of the damage that uncontrolled stormwater runoff can cause to homes, businesses, and roads through flooding and erosion, experts say.
Across the U.S., flooding causes over $3 billion in property damage and 150 deaths a year, according to the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). But about a quarter of the economic damage (or roughly $750 million a year) is not from hurricanes or rising rivers, but from uncontrolled suburban and urban rainwater runoff, FEMA reports.
“When you have development, you can have runoff that is either under-controlled, or not controlled –- and then during large rain events, flooding and related problems not only damage property, but can be a threat to life and health,” said Timothy Bruno, a watershed manager for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Palmyra, Pa., is particularly vulnerable to sink holes caused by flooding, according to borough officials. This is because the town of about 7,000 was built on a formation of limestone that runs through parts of central Pennsylvania and Maryland, and into the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.
Acidity in water slowly dissolves limestone in these so-called “karst” formations, forming underground caverns. These caverns often fill with dirt. And then when rainstorms hit, water flushes out these soft plugs, creating sinkholes.
Palmyra Borough Manager Roger Powl said that although this geological formation contributed to the destruction on Oct. 11, the damage could likely have been avoided or minimized if the town had a stormwater control system under its streets. Such a system would have collected and piped away runoff so it would not have caused as much flooding, Powl said.
The community in the past was reluctant to invest in runoff control infrastructure. But starting this spring, Powl said, Palmyra is changing course and will start building a stormwater system that not only collects runoff but filters it to reduce pollution in streams that feed into the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay.
After the evacuation from their damaged home, the Stoltzfus family was sheltered by the American Red Cross. And then Elizabeth’s mother took the children into her home outside of town. Three of the kids tripled up in their grandmother’s spare bedroom, while another slept in the basement.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth and her husband, Jonathan, shivered for several weeks in a poorly-heated camper in the driveway.
Jonathan Stoltzfus said the displacement he and his neighbors suffered is a vivid illustration of why communities should invest in stormwater runoff control systems. Stormwater fees to pay for these systems have been created by more than 1,400 communities across the U.S., including six in Pennsylvania (although not Palmyra); 17 in Virginia; and eight in Maryland because of a state law that required them on July 1. The Maryland stormwater law sparked a heated debate over whether such stormwater fees are necessary.
“It’s definitely important to take care of stormwater,” said Jonathan Stoltzsfus, a truck driver. “I mean, take a look at what we’re going through. There are a lot of people out of their homes here. This is something that should have been addressed years ago. Now it’s finally time to get serious and really deal with the problem of runoff.”
If you think stormwater runoff fees are taxing, try camping for weeks -- in the cold -- on the driveway of your mother in law's home. Flood damage is far harder on people's psyches and wallets.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation