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An old Pennsylvania town is figuring out how to prepare for more extreme rainstorms

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Climate change is bringing a greater risk of flooding to cities and towns across the country. And some older towns have the added challenge of waterways that were covered up or otherwise restricted decades ago. WITF's Rachel McDevitt reports on how one Pennsylvania town is figuring out how to prepare for more frequent and more severe rainstorms.

RACHEL MCDEVITT, BYLINE: Samantha Sharp opens the gate to the backyard of her small home and points out cracks in the concrete porch left over from a 2017 flood. She remembers that day vividly.

SAMANTHA SHARP: We were rushing to our neighbors, knocking on their doors, telling them they had to move their cars. And the neighbor across the street at the time - by the time we got to him, we had to help push his vehicle out of the water.

MCDEVITT: The town's storm sewers overflowed, pushing water back to the family's sump pumps. The basement filled up like a bathtub. The Sharps had to replace the furnace, the water heater.

SHARP: And then you figure all the arts and crafts that me and my brother made when we were kids that were irreplaceable - they're gone. You couldn't keep any of it.

MCDEVITT: Sharp's parents didn't think about flooding when they bought the house in Middletown, Pa., in the '90s. The town of about 10,000 people sits on the Susquehanna River. But the home is not in the floodplain. The 2017 storm dropped 4 inches of rain in an hour. Because it was fairly isolated, it didn't cause enough damage to be declared a disaster. Researchers from Penn State are trying to figure out all the factors behind these new flooding problems. In the center of town, students are taking measurements under the guidance of engineering professor Shirley Clark, who's helping the town pinpoint the problems. She started with historical records.

SHIRLEY CLARK: And I look. There is a buried stream underground at the bottom of this hill that's in our sewer pipes. That's not showing on any of the maps.

MCDEVITT: It's called Bloody Run, likely named for the slaughterhouses that used to sit alongside it. It was shunted into a pipe and paved over between the 1930s and '50s. It's right next to the Sharps' home and could have made their 2017 flooding worse. Many cities have similar buried streams. Somewhere in their histories, planners decided the streams were a nuisance or thought they should be replaced with buildable land.

CLARK: And that water's going to run at some point, right? And the more of it runs off, it's going to find the easiest place to go.

MCDEVITT: With more intense storms, flood waters are now showing up where they didn't before, outside flood zones designated by the federal government. Clark and her team are trying to figure out the relationship between forgotten streams, rainfall rates, soil moisture and flooding. Deron Muehring is a civil engineer for Dubuque, Iowa, which sits on another major river, the Mississippi. He says the situation in Middletown sounds familiar.

DERON MUEHRING: You know, over a period of 12 years, we had six rainstorms that produced presidential disaster declaration.

MCDEVITT: Muehring headed up a sweeping solution that included daylighting a buried creek. The former Bee Branch Sewer became the Bee Branch Creek surrounded by park space. The city bought out about 100 properties to make room for it. In other infrastructure, Muehring says Dubuque is designing for 500-year flood events, severe storms with a historically low chance of happening.

MUEHRING: It made sense for us to design for that 500 years so that we were in a better position to accommodate whatever the future might hold in terms of rainfall.

MCDEVITT: The project cost hundreds of millions of dollars and took over a decade to design and build. But Muehring says it's working in guarding against floods. The Bee Branch Creek is even seen as an asset.

MUEHRING: You know, in fact, there was an ad in the newspaper for a house in the area, and it said Bee Branch frontage.

MCDEVITT: The Sharps and other families in Middletown are eager for solutions, but answers will have to wait until the town gets more information on how to mitigate the flooding risks climate change is bringing. For NPR News, I'm Rachel McDevitt in Middletown, Pa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel McDevitt