By Esack, The Morning Call
Hurricane Irene is history, its legacy of high winds and flash floods a memory for most. A majority of homes and businesses in the Lehigh Valley have their power back and the cleanup continued Tuesday in earnest. Now it's time for the damage assessment.
Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Association will be traveling with their state and local counterparts Wednesday to assess property damage in Northampton County. The state and federal governments will be doing the same thing next week in Lehigh County as part of President Barack Obama's disaster declaration for 13 counties in eastern Pennsylvania.
Bob Mateff, director of Northampton County emergency management services, said Obama's disaster declaration means residents and businesses could receive financial assistance from the federal government to help cover flood and wind damage. Mateff said there needs to be at least an estimated $975,000 worth of documentable damage across the county for individuals and business owners to qualify for government assistance.
"We are working with PEMA and FEMA to do what is called a 'joint damage assessment,' " Mateff said.
That assessment includes asking all local municipalities to tally damage, a task that was completed Tuesday in Hellertown.
Borough Manager Cathy Kichline said Borough Hall has been cleaned and sanitized after a sewer pipe burst in the basement when storm water infiltrated it. Most of the power outages in the borough also have been repaired, she said. Most of what is left now is mud from the receding waters of Saucon Creek, which runs along the west side of the borough.
"Fortunately there was not a lot of structural damage," Kichline said.
A little north of Hellertown, along Route 412, the South Side Little League in Bethlehem was not so lucky. The Saucon Creek burst its banks, inundating the league's fields, concession stand and equipment sheds.
"The flooding was so bad it took everything," P.J. Lum, a league board member, said in an email. "All three fields were under 3-4 feet of water. Our field house and concession stand was as well and everything inside was destroyed — all team uniforms, mowers, freezers, refrigerators, equipment, etc."
The fields are adjacent to Norwood Street homes where residents had to be evacuated at the height of the storm in the early-morning hours Sunday.
P.J. Allen of Norwood Street heard firefighters knocking at 7 a.m. to evacuate. The water came up over the petite woman's chest and firefighters had to guide her and her family along a rope so that she could get to higher ground.
"I took my cellphone and cigarettes. That's it," Allen said. "We had to leave the rest behind."
Obama issued a disaster declaration for Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lehigh, Luzerne, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia, Pike, Sullivan, Wayne and Wyoming counties.
Lehigh Valley Congressman Charlie Dent, in a letter to Obama, thanked the president for what Dent termed a rapid response to Gov. Tom Corbett's emergency disaster assistance request. Dent asked Obama to consider Corbett's request for a major disaster declaration, should the governor make such a request.
Mateff said the federal disaster declaration allows local government agencies to seek reimbursement costs for overtime and cleanup costs incurred since Friday. But Mateff said those figures will be tallied at a later date so his office, PEMA and FEMA can concentrate on helping homeowners and business owners recover first.
Frank Kane, chief of staff to Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham, said the state and federal governments are scheduled for their Lehigh County tour Sept. 8.
On Tuesday, Allentown officials indefinitely closed the S. Albert Street Bridge over Trout Creek because of structural damage caused by the storm.
The city also lifted its 48-hour request for customers to conserve water use after the Allentown Water Filtration Plant became fully operational following two water main breaks, flooding and power outages caused by Irene.
"I want to thank the public for its response," Public Works Director Rich Young said. "The system worked well and our users heeded the message."
PPL spokesman Kurt Blumenau said 85 percent of customers who originally lost power over the weekend have been restored. As of 10:20 p.m. Tuesday, PPL was reporting 30,365 customers still remained without power, mostly in Monroe, Pike and Wayne counties.
"They are more wooded areas in our service territory and so they are more prone to falling trees," Blumenau said.
There were still about 3,600 PPL customers without power in Lehigh and Northampton counties as of 10:20 p.m. Tuesday, including 2,300 in Lehigh. Met-Ed, the other major power supplier in the Valley, had about 250 outages in Lehigh and 2,500 in Northampton.
Blumenau said PPL continues to use out-of-state workers from its other divisions and other utility companies to help restore power to customers. By the weekend, all but about 1 percent of customers should have their power back, he said.
Richard D. Molchany, president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Zoo, is happy to get the lights back after they went out Saturday evening at the zoo and game preserve in Schnecksville.
"We had no ability to power the pumps," he said. "So we had to manually take water to the animals. It was a bit of an inconvenience, but it had to be done."
No animals or people were hurt. No storm damage occurred to fenced enclosures, Molchany said.
The zoo reopened Tuesday.
So did public and private schools in the Bethlehem Area and Easton Area school districts after students got one extra day of summer vacation by not reporting to class Monday.