At 9:07 a.m. Jan. 19, 1996, the National Weather Service forecast flooding on the Monongahela and Cheat Rivers and estimated the water would crest at 22.5 feet at Pittsburgh’s Point at 5 p.m. the next day.
The city didn’t realize how fast the water was moving until employees from the Pittsburgh Parking Authority called to say water was creeping up on the wharfs. By late morning, calls were coming in to the Pittsburgh Emergency Operations Center.
At 12:50 p.m. that Friday, estimates were revised: hydrologists now predicted the rivers at the Point would crest at 30 feet at 1 p.m. Saturday. That meant widespread flooding of businesses in Pittsburgh. Pumping operations would have to start at Neville Island. The “bathtub” — the low-lying portion of the Parkway that runs through the city — would have to be shut down.
Reporters and photographers scrambled to document the rising waters. Among them was the PG’s Dennis B. Roddy, who later chronicled the events of the weekend in a story titled “Meltdown: The Diary of a Flood.”
Low-lying lots on the Mon and Allegheny wharfs flooded and cars bobbed in the rising waters. The 10th Street bypass was flooded as well.
Calls came in from Emsworth, Etna and Millvale. They were being flooded.
The National Weather Service again updated the crest forecast, to 33 feet, around 5:15 p.m.
By 6, Grant Street was barricaded. The Fort Pitt Museum was told that if the water got to 33 feet, 3 feet of water would pour into the museum. Workers began sandbagging the museum’s entrance.
Evacuations started in the riverside neighborhood of Duck Hollow.
Water at the Point reached 30.9 feet at midnight. The National Weather Service revised its estimates again. Officials now believed the river would peak at 35.5 — a record roughly matching Hurricane Agnes in 1972.
Shortly after midnight, barges broke loose on the Allegheny. They plowed downriver, banging into every bridge between Oakmont and Beaver County, Mr. Roddy wrote. “In the dark, no one could tell if the barges have damaged the bridges.”
At 12:39 a.m., the Oakmont Docks on the Allegheny broke loose with pleasure boats attached. They followed the barges downriver, were slammed by giant slabs of ice and jammed into bridges.
Point Counterpoint, a 200-foot barge used by the Pittsburgh Wind Symphony, ended up on top of several vehicles caught by the fast-rising waters on the Allegheny Wharf.
At 1:03 a.m., all bridges along the Allegheny River from the Sixth Street bridge to the Highland Park bridge were closed.
At 3:30 a.m., the water level at the Point was 33 feet.
At 4:50 a.m. a county garage on McKee Street was flooded, as was the tunnel that leads from the shore of the Allegheny River to Three Rivers Stadium. Water approached Gate C. Equipment was pulled out. The Steelers would prepare for Super Bowl XXX on higher ground.
At 5 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 20, water at the Point reached 33.62 feet.
Evacuations began in towns up and down the rivers.
At 10 a.m., the Three Rivers finally crested.
Mayor Tom Murphy flew over the city in mid-morning on Saturday and reported that the worst was over.
He said he was troubled by the shift in predictions by the weather service. His press secretary, Judy Kelly, later asked: “How the hell did they have 22 1/2?”
The National Weather Service’s Lou Giordano acknowledged that early estimates had been low. “As much as people think ‘boy, these are the experts, they must have it down to a pinpoint,’ we use equations. But we also use averages.”
The fast-rising rivers that caught people all over the state unaware were caused by a set of flukey conditions. Gov. Tom Ridge, at a Jan. 22 news conference, discussed the rapid succession of heavy snowfalls, warming temperatures and rain that caused heavy flooding all over the state.
“We’ve never had four seasons of weather pushed together in a two-week period of time in the middle of January,” he said.