November 27, 2015
Some days, it might be easier if Mary Ellen Ramage simply left her right arm constantly in the air in a waving position. As the perpetually cheery borough manager of the small river town of Etna, Pennsylvania, the stream of greetings and hugs simply comes too quickly to allow time for a break. Often, the shouts of “Hey, Mary Ellen!” fly past from passing pickup trucks before she can identify the voices. But being able to patch together who they are from the back of a vehicle is one of the perks of “literally knowing everyone in town.”
So when Ramage calls Etna a “tight-knit community,” it doesn’t feel like the kind of thing people always say about small towns. Rather, it’s an assessment based on empirical evidence—data collected over decades of observing how this town of 3,500 residents has, in fact, come together. Indeed, if tough times help bind a community together, Etna has had its share of opportunities to grow close.
“We’re a community of survivors,” Ramage says with some heaviness in her voice. Etna, like many western Pennsylvania “river towns,” is an old steel mill town whose economy imploded in the 1980s with the collapse of the industry. Later, eminent domain claimed valuable land as the state built highways connecting nearby Pittsburgh to what were seen as its more viable suburbs. But Etna’s biggest battle has always been with water. Situated at the bottom of the suburban North Hills and bordered on three sides by rivers and streams, it is topographically like the narrow end of a funnel. Every time it rains, against its will, Etna becomes saturated with runoff stormwater from the neighboring hillside communities. Decades ago, it was something that was the constant source of grudges against its neighbors. Now, most people in Etna realize it’s just a conspiracy of geography—an unfortunate fact of living in a town where a full third of the community lies in what is technically a flood plain.
The running joke, Ramage says, is that Etna should be renamed ‘Wetna.’ And over the last hundred years, Etna has endured many floods. But the one in 2004 was nearly more than this community of survivors could handle. That September, the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan pummeled southwestern Pennsylvania, leaving Etna helpless to the slow motion tidal wave draining down from the North Hills. When the storm subsided, 25 percent of the community was under water, including Etna’s police department, which Ramage says, was essentially “wiped out.”
“So, here we were with a moral duty to respond to these residents, and we were incapacitated,” Ramage says. “Ivan was really a pivotal moment. Immediately after the flood, we got together and said, we have to do something about this.” And that ‘something’ Etna decided to do was pretty radical: This mostly blue-collar community decided that it was going to have to do something pretty green in order to survive.
Shortly after the flood, the community adopted a green master plan to initiate more than 20 projects of so-called “green and blue” infrastructure, which would harness (or mimic) the power of nature to mitigate flooding. Walk along the downtown stretches of Butler Street and you’ll see this new approach starting to take shape. A foot-wide iron grate now snakes down the sidewalk, transforming the normally impermeable walkway into a path where water can slowly filter into the ground. Meanwhile, deep underneath the sidewalk, a high-tech infiltration bed invisibly collects water from the nearby rooftops of Etna’s business district. Travel one block north, and you’ll find a parking lot that was re-engineered to safely drain more than half a million gallons of stormwater a year. And the city has initiated a rain garden program, so that residents can build mini wetlands on their properties to do their own part in the perpetual battle to keep ‘Wetna’ dry.
Etna has had to make some hard decisions too. None more so than confronting the reality that a lot of its remaining opportunities for growth lie in its lowest, wettest parts.
“We sat down with a map, and we drew a 50-foot buffer around Pine Creek,” Ramage says. “And we sat and we looked at it and we realized that was the majority of the open land where we could actually develop some additional tax base. But my board made a very responsible decision, and said, If this were Ivan, and there were things built here, think of how much worse the devastation would be. So that’s when we began developing open space and green space.”
Making a commitment to not commercially develop what is prime real estate has been the hardest test of Etna’s will to redefine its future. But it’s the kind of thing that has become the hallmark of the community’s aggressive new approach to its own survival.
“This is an old steel mill town, and people think that’s something that can’t be changed,” Ramage says. “But it can. You know, when I first took this position, the term ‘river town’ kind of had a negative connotation on it. It meant, those are the poor people, in the floodplain. But now, being a river town is such a cool thing to be, because people want to live by the water. We just need to recognize the asset that we have, and do what we can to protect the asset that we have.”
Many around the area have started to recognize it too. In fact, watching Etna’s achievements from the surrounding hillsides, some of its neighbors have christened ‘Wetna’ with a new nickname: “Mighty Etna.” The way things are going, it’s only a matter of time before the name catches on.
This story is part of our series of audio postcards exploring life on the Three Rivers. To check out the other stories in the "Our Three Rivers" series, click here.