As long as he can see the rocks, he’ll be ok.
Kris Alutius is the live-in caretaker for the Philadelphia Canoe Club, located at the mouth of the Wissahickon Creek and the Schuylkill River. He’s the point man for the club, and in many ways, point man for the entire city, as his building is among the first in Philadelphia to experience the effects of Schuylkill River flooding.
As of early Monday afternoon, a turtle-shaped rock located in the middle of the Wissahickon was covered, but the rocky outcropping in the center of the Schuylkill was still visible. This is one of his personal signals for the relative safety of his domicile.
There are other indicators: The first warning is when water rises to the crest of the small slope at the river’s edge; the second is when water begins to lap at a “private property” sign at the top of the slope. The final warning and signal for Alutius to abandon ship is the cement porch that surrounds the club.
When water reaches this point, he’s gone.
‘We’re definitely prepared’
Inside the clubhouse, which dates to the 17th Century, there are numerous markers – both formal and informal – of previous high water events. The bricks that line the club’s fireplace leech calcium from previous water intrusion; walls in both the clubhouse and Alutius’ personal residence are stained with water lines. A pillar in the center of the club’s main hall has small brass plates that note various high water marks, the date, and the name of the storm that begat their placement.
The highest marker is from Hurricane Floyd from September 1999. It’s about five feet off of the ground.
But Alutius and the PCC won’t be caught off guard.
“Oh, we’re prepared,” said PCC Commodore Rosemary Rau. “We’re definitely prepared.”
Tables inside the club’s main hall are stacked high with club furniture, and the refrigerators are elevated on cinder blocks off of the floor near the kitchen. In addition, a wooden board has been nailed to two supporting beams in the main hall, which will secure the wooden floor of the club, which has a tendency to float away from the steel beams upon which it rests.
That’s not all that can float in the clubhouse:”If [the water’s] high enough you can actually paddle inside the clubhouse,” said Rau.
The club’s boats are storm-ready as well. They’ve been removed from their sheds and were moved to higher ground, where they are tethered to their racks.
Dozens of club members participated in the preparations, which took place over the weekend according to Rau.
“They love their beloved canoe club and they always come out to help us get ready for flooding,” she said.
Even in the best of weather, electricity is a problem at the club, so in case of power failure Alutius is keeping his phone charged, as he sets the alarm every two hours in order to monitor the river levels overnight.
Predicting Sandy’s impact
While the potential for some flooding is probable given the severity of the storm, Alutius expressed some level of optimism. Fortunately for him and the club, the storm is approaching from the east, which he believes will mitigate water runoff from tributaries at higher elevations.
Coupled with this is a unique observation about the water that flows alongside his home: For water to truly threaten the site it’s not so much the water’s height – flood stage for the club is approximately 13 feet – as it is the speed.
When water flow reaches 60,000 cubic feet per second, trouble is near.
“The USGS is predicting eleven feet, and that will probably take the water up to the bottom of the porch,” said Rau. “I’ve been a member for 25 years and I just hope we can keep this place together for the next 500 years.”
In the meantime, there’s not much left for Alutius to do but keep his cooler stocked with food and water in the event of a hasty departure, and perhaps practice some Bruckner or Tchaikovsky on his antique silver-plated King trumpet.
And keep an eye on those rocks, which were receding into the rising Schuylkill by 5 p.m.
Megan Pinto contributed to this report.