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Advancements in forecasting help predict flooding

Lisa Golubiewski checks her CoCoRahs rain gage in her Duryea backyard.
Sarah Scinto
WVIA Photo
Lisa Golubiewski checks her CoCoRahs rain gage in her Duryea backyard.

From Sunday's Keystone Edition Radio:

With a passing glance, you might think the plastic cylinder stationed on a four-foot-tall pole in Lisa Golubiewski’s backyard in Duryea is an empty bird feeder, or maybe a large, insulated thermometer.

Look closer though, and you’ll see the markings on the inner column aren’t temperatures - they’re measurements. There’s no way for an animal to get in either, only rainwater.

It’s an official rain gage monitored by the National Weather Service as part of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network - or CoCoRahs for short.

“I think I see about five others that regularly report in our county,” Golubiewski said. “It's just interesting to know that they actually use the data.”

The National Weather Service recognizes the CoCoRahs network as a service improvement on a new webpage dedicated to the changes made in forecasting since the Agnes flood of 1972. The site notes rain gauge data was collected using buckets in 1972 and meteorologists could only access the data using phone lines.

David Nicosia, meteorologist-in-charge for the National Weather Service in Binghamton, New York, calls Agnes a “benchmark storm.” He said forecasting river levels and rainfall has changed the most in the past 50 years.

“Back then they had limited computing power, very limited,” he said. “They did a lot of stuff just using graphs and paper and stuff like that.”

When Agnes arrived, Nicosia said the National Weather Service could not effectively monitor or forecast rainfall. Now, meteorologists take rainfall forecasts and add them to “river models,” to predict river levels as accurately as possible.

“So they just forecasted the river levels based on all the stream gauges and how much water was flowing down the basin,” he said. “They just didn't have the technology back then to really anticipate how bad this was going to be.”

Service coordination hydrologist Rob Shedd works on river forecasts for the Mid Atlantic region out of State College, Pennsylvania. He said the variety and availability of data has made the most difference in the years since 1972.

“The basic science is basically the same, but the types of available data that we have today is just so much different in terms of the radar data, satellite data, and so much real time information,” he said. “The other piece that we use now is precipitation forecasts…that was not really being incorporated into the forecast processes at that point, as far as I can tell.”

Shedd has reviewed the forecasts the National Weather Service produced in 1972 to help create their Agnes 50 webpage with the Silver Jackets. He said he admires what the forecasters of the day were able to do - they were able to forecast a close estimate of the river’s crest “more than 36 hours in advance,” and allowed thousands of people to get out of the area in time.

“But still… we did have, you know, over 100 people, 100 lives lost throughout the region,” he said. “Anything that we can be doing to be reducing that is a good thing.”

Nicosia saw many of the National Weather Service’s improvements in action 11 years ago when tropical storm Lee lingered over the Susquehanna and caused flooding in much of the area that had been impacted by Agnes.

“They, we were able to forecast the rain and everything and they did a great job. They forecast you know, 40 plus feet at Wilkes-Barre a couple days in advance,” Nicosia said. “It shows the technology has come a long, long way. And we're even further along 11 years after tropical storm Lee as well.”

Golubiewski remembers both Lee and Agnes well. During Lee, the river flooded the first floor of her home in Duryea. She had her CoCoRahs gauge at the time and kept measuring rainfall until she had gathered more than 7 inches - and then everyone in her neighborhood had to leave before the river crested.

Golubiewski grew up in Jenkins Township. She was seven years old when the Agnes flood hit. She remembers standing on the Water Street Bridge in Pittston, watching debris from homes and cars “flying” down the river.

“And my older sister and cousin did clean up in the flood,” she said. “I remember them coming home so covered in that terribly smelling mud, and they would have to get undressed on the back porch because it was so bad.”

Golubiewski has been fascinated by weather for most of her life and even dreamed of being a meteorologist herself, ever since she watched a tornado touch down near her childhood home. She’s a nurse now, but participating in CoCoRahs and knowing her data is useful keeps her fascination alive.

“It just makes me feel good that I can contribute and my contributions are important,” she said. “I'm not doing this all for naught. It's really an important part of our weather forecasting and monitoring.”

For more on Agnes and the storm’s impact on Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania, tune in for a special episode of Keystone Edition Reports on June 23rd at 7 p.m. on WVIA-TV, along with the broadcast premiere of Agnes 50: Life After the Flood at 9 p.m. that night.

Sarah Scinto is the local host of All Things Considered on WVIA. She is a Connecticut native and graduate of King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, and has previously covered Northeastern Pennsylvania for The Scranton Times-Tribune, The Citizens’ Voice and Greater Pittston Progress.