East Germantown grapples with “what ifs” of a flood turned fatal

Robert Williams still feels sick about the young woman that drowned in her car Thursday near the corner of East Haines and Musgrave streets in East Germantown.

Williams, an usher with Praise, Power and Deliverance Church, said he passed by the mud-slicked Chrysler Pacifica at least 10 times that day as he and other neighbors assessed the aftermath of a torrential rain storm that flooded the area overnight.

“We all walked past the car and no one ever took time out to look at the car to see if anyone was in there,” he said. “I feel like I was a big letdown.”

The SUV was towed Thursday afternoon after police thought the car was abandoned. Later that evening, detectives discovered the 27-year-old in the backseat at a West Philadelphia tow lot. The victim’s father, a city police officer, had filed a missing persons report after not hearing from his daughter, who had called around 2:30 a.m. to tell him floodwaters had trapped her inside.

It’s difficult to determine whether residents could have saved the woman’s life. It’s still not clear how soon the woman, whose name has not yet been released, died after calling her father and 911.

Officials with the Philadelphia Water Department do know that the storm hit East Germantown the hardest. PWD spokeswoman Laura Copeland said approximately four inches of rain fell in two hours there.

“That’s an awful lot of rain,” said Copeland, who added that the overall storm was very rare, the type that only occurs every two centuries in Philadelphia.

Copeland said the cause of the severe flooding at the intersection is simple: too much water in too little time.

“The sewer system became overtaxed with the sheer volume of the rain that occurred in a short period of time. It had nowhere else to go,” she said.

The intersection of East Haines and Musgrave is also a low elevation point for the area, meaning that floodwaters from higher ground all dumped down into the area,

“I don’t know what could have been prevented to be honest,” she said.

Lt. Raymond Evers, a spokesman with the Philadelphia Police Department, said there was no way to know the flooding would be so severe. Officers did not reach out to the community beforehand to warn of potential danger.

At least eight people in the area were rescued from their cars during the flash flood, according to Evers. He said the drowning was “a very tragic event and it’s very, very unfortunate.”

The city is currently working towards creating a hydraulic model of its sewer system so that it can identify and fix infrastructure issues and problem intersections such as East Haines and Musgrave. That engineering study is still in its nascent stages and does not have a defined deadline, according to Copeland.

“Infrastructure solutions do take time,” she said. “It’s not a quick fix.”

Copeland said PWD also is working with city and state officials to designate the intersection as a historic floodplain, which would make residents eligible to receive with flood insurance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In the meantime, Williams and other neighbors will work to recover from a horrendous flood that has displaced from their homes, churches and businesses.

“It’s like a ghost town down here,” said Wiliams.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.