Residents recall California Election Day Flood of 1985

Floodwaters rose to astonishing levels during the Election Day Flood of 1985. Photo courtesy of Rosemary Capanna.

Floodwaters rose to astonishing levels during the Election Day Flood of 1985. Photo courtesy of Rosemary Capanna.

Thirty years ago this November, the town of California and surrounding areas were hit by a historic flood that will forever be referred to among locals as the “Election Day Flood.”

By the end of Election Day on Nov. 5, 1985, a fourth stage flood alert had been issued with waters reaching the 44 foot mark, 18 feet over flood stage. A reported 4.45 inches of rain had fallen between Oct. 31 and Nov. 6. It wasn’t until 3 a.m. on Nov. 6 when the floodwaters receded.

“There are several things that stand out to me…” recalled California resident Rosemary Capanna. “We lived on Malden Road. Before Route 43 was constructed, Route 88 ran out of town, much as it does now, looping around the Bottoms (now Rotary Park) and toward Coal Center. Coming out of California, you had to turn left to go onto Malden. All of it was underwater – all of it.”

Despite the chaotic floodwaters rising, many recall both the townspeople and students working together during this time of crisis. Many fraternities, sororities, and ROTC gave their all to assist the National Guard.

“The National Guard was stationed at Malden Crossroads to prevent anyone from driving down toward the Bottoms.” said Capanna, “We didn’t have the Intermediate Unit or Tech Park, so there were only a handful of residents and very little traffic.”

Students also helped out by evacuating residents from apartments, nursing homes, and retirement homes. Phi Kappa Theta fraternity members helped serve coffee, sandwiches, soup, and chili out of the G. C. Murphy’s in town.

“Several of us took hot coffee and sandwiches, things like that, to the National Guard troops. We really appreciated them, and they appreciated that we were thinking of them,” added Capanna, “It was hard not to think of them because the weather was absolutely miserable and they were standing out in it. It was a very serious situation.”

At the time, since there was no Route 43 for commuters to use to reach Cal U, and roads leading into town were blocked by floodwaters as the day progressed, getting news out to commuting students, faculty and staff was vital. Gary Miller, a 1987 Cal U alum who was a junior in November 1985 was broadcasting the morning news for WVCS-FM (now WCAL) when he first learned flooding was occurring. During a 2010 Cal Times interview, Miller recalled the chaos of that day.

“What I remember very keenly is that the flood seemed to catch a lot of people by surprise,” he said. “We focused on making sure commuter students knew certain roads were closed, preventing them from reaching campus.”

With only a limited staff of reporters, Gary Miller said WVCS did its best to cover the flood’s impact, as well to keep students apprised of continuing developments.

“Keep in mind, the flood occurred in the Dark Ages before cell phones and texting,” Miller said. “So we had to gather our information and then drive to a pay phone to submit our reports.”

The floodwaters stopped rising around 3 a.m. on Nov. 6. The President of Cal U at the time, Dr. John Pierce Watkins, cancelled classes until Nov. 12 at 8 a.m.

After it was over, flood damage had heavily affected both the borough and California University.

According to a November 1985 Brownsville Telegraph article by Jim Smith, 200 California residents were advised to vacate their homes on Second Street and Mechanic Street, with some homeowners seeing water rise to the second floor. Lifeboats were used to help move people and belongings.

On campus, the buildings hardest hit were the Frich Building and then male dormitory Binns Hall. The first floor of the Frich Building was flooded with four feet of water and a $10,000 electron microscope was destroyed. Watkins said total Electricity was lost, and whether or not it was safe to drink the water came into question.

“When the rain stopped and the waters receded a little, I drove down Malden as far as I could (without alerting the Guard) and took photos of some people trying to get their cars out of the flooding,” said Capanna, “I had a telephoto lens so I was able to get some decent shots.”

Two local California town businesses hit hard by flood damage were the old G.C Murphy’s department store (Now Dollar General and Jozart) and Ernie Miller’s Hardware Store (Now Campy’s Pizza). In July 1985, it was announced that by the end of the year, G. C. Murphy’s store would close for good. It did briefly reopen after the flood, resuming their going out of business sale, but closed by the end of 1985.

In a 2010 interview, Ernie Miller recalled that as the flood waters began to rise, he initially kept his hardware store open to assist townspeople in need of necessary supplies to survive the effects of the flood. As time passed, the effects of the flood took their toll.

“The whole basement was filled up with water,” Miller recalled in 2010, “And there was 10 inches on the main store floor as well. Thanks to the help of Cal U fraternity students, much of the store merchandise in the basement, including 25 water heaters, was saved.”

In spring of 1986, Miller relocated his hardware business to the then vacant G.C. Murphy space. As a result, Miller ended up dealing twice with flood damage clean up.

As seen here, Second Street (and surrounding streets) were devastated during the flood. Photo courtesy of Rosemary Capanna.

As seen here, Second Street (and surrounding streets) were devastated during the flood. Photo courtesy of Rosemary Capanna.

“When I was in the Campy’s location, we had to scrub out a lot of the store and put in new carpeting,” Miller recalled in 2010, “When I moved over to where Murphy’s had been, their whole basement had been flooded, and water had reached the main store floor, so there was some damage to repair before I opened for business there.”

Though the waters had stopped rising, it was now time for both California residents and California University of Pennsylvania to clean up the damage left behind.

Firemen pumped water four feet deep out of dorms, classrooms and offices on the Cal U campus and also from the basements of many businesses in town.

No homes in California were destroyed, however ten suffered major damage, and 44 suffered minor damage. Neighboring areas such as Roscoe and Elco had five homes destroyed, and New Eagle had 22 destroyed.

On Nov. 12, 1985, classes resumed at Cal U after being closed since Nov. 6.

“Residents and students showed tremendous teamwork in dealing with the clean-up work, which went on for quite some time, perhaps even into spring of 1986,” recalled 1987 Cal U Alum Gary Miller. “The disaster did create a shared sense of community that had been absent before the flood.”

Barry Niccolai, Assistant Executive Director at Centerville Clinics, was at the time stationed at the California Fire Department.

“I was so proud of our Greek students who gave of their time to help in the community,” Niccolai said. “We had put a call out to them to assist residents in town move out or move to higher floors.”

Although the flood did much damage in 1985, it created a lasting memory for many.

“Something that is memorable to me, as to so many others in more personal ways, was the devastation,” said Capanna. “Many of my friends lived near the Mon, and many of them lost everything.”
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Story by Chuck Brutz for Pennsylvania Bridges