“I was really shocked by how fast the river came up,” said Lockmaster Paul Meininger, as he stood against a backdrop of mud, ice and debris scattered across Monongahela River Locks and Dam 4 at Charleroi, March 7.
Two days prior, Mother Nature was preparing to slam Charleroi and most of the Monongahela River locks. Weather forecasters predicted high water and potential ice jams. Lock operators and mechanics at the Lower Monongahela River locks at Braddock, Elizabeth and Charleroi scrambled to strip lock walls of critical electrical components and equipment as warming temperatures and precipitation induced a quick thaw of ice and snow.
“We didn’t think it was going to give us this much water,” said Meininger. “We had to prepare. Take down all the equipment that could be damaged by the water. It was a labor intensive effort.”
The receding water left a jumble of trees, brush, and debris glued to the lock walls by frozen mud.
Recovery was slowed by equipment failures due to the extreme temperatures, but lock operators at Charleroi were able to push through the first tow barge about a day after the flood. “We had lots of frozen mud on the walls,” said Lock Operator Alan Nogy. “It was so cold that we could not use the pumps and hoses to clear it off.”
Just downriver on March 5, Charlie Weight and his crew prepared for flooding at Locks and Dam 3 at Elizabeth.
“We look at the predictions with the weather conditions and we use those as tool to calculate what we need to remove,” said Weight. Crews move safety equipment, tools, and electronic lock gate components from the middle lock wall – which is the control center for the lock – to higher ground. “If we don’t remove it, we’re at risk of losing major components we need to operate the locks.
The 108-year-old lock is the first to go under water during high water on the Mon River and stripping the lock is almost routine. However, recovering from this icy flood was tougher than most.
Five feet of water covered the lock walls during high water and then temperatures dipped below freezing again after the river crested. As water levels dropped, the deposited mud and debris froze inside the utility galleries that run the length of the lock’s middle wall and contain the critical components for operating the locks. Crews worked to chipped out utility galleries and warm components in an attempt to speed the facility’s return to service.
“We’re removing the plates and trying to get some sunlight down there to thaw this out,” said Lock Operator Russ Mikach as he yanked a large, square plate off the top of a utility canal. “We’re going to push water through to get the mud and ice broken up a little bit and free up the emptying valves so that we can get back into operations,” he added.
The hard work paid off as navigation resumed shortly after the flood. Throughout the winter, lock workers battled the extreme elements to ensure navigation on the district’s three rivers.
“It was hard work but these guys do a wonderful job,” said Meininger of his crew.
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