Agnes '72 Memories Rise to Mind as Residents Seek Higher Ground
Erdley, Debra, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
WILKES-BARRE - At the stately GAR Memorial High School on the slopes high above this northeastern Pennsylvania community, the only hint Wednesday night of the raging river below was the 200 evacuees who sought refuge at the shelter there after being ordered to evacuate their homes in the city's flood plain.
About 150,000 people in the Wyoming Valley were ordered to leave their homes yesterday because of rising water on the Susquehanna River, while communities farther downstream and along the Delaware River braced for major flooding.
"The last time I was here was when I graduated from high school in 1949," said Dolores Kosek, of Wilkes-Barre, who sought shelter in the high school with her husband, Henry.
"Hopefully, we can go home in the morning," Henry Kosek said.
Wilkes-Barre, the county seat of Luzerne County, was devastated by flooding in 1972 by the remnants of Hurricane Agnes.
It is now protected by a levee system, but county officials said they were being cautious because waters from the Susquehanna were expected to test the strength of the floodwalls.
Wilkes-Barre City Administrator J.J. Murphy said nearly 40 percent of the city's 43,000 residents were affected by the mandatory evacuation order.
The exodus was the biggest shock among many caused by the record deluge that has dropped several inches of rain across the region -- more than a foot in Washington and Baltimore -- and killed at least 12 people from Virginia to New York.
The Susquehanna and its tributaries, running from upstate New York through Pennsylvania, accounted for some of the worst damage. In the Binghamton, N.Y., area, a house floated down the river, and whole villages north of Binghamton County were isolated by high water.
Rescue helicopters had to pluck residents from rooftops in three communities and widespread flooding across central and eastern Pennsylvania damaged homes and businesses.
Parts of Bloomsburg were already under water and the National Weather Service said more than 25 percent of the Columbia County college town could flood.
Murphy said Solomon's Creek, a stream that empties into the Susquehanna, spilled its banks Tuesday, flooding the basements of about 170 homes. As of last night, that was the extent of damage in the city.
"We learned our lessons from (hurricanes) Katrina and Rita and, instead of waiting until it was too late, started evacuating people at noon (Tuesday)," Murphy said.
He estimated that approximately 500 residents took shelter in several facilities high on the slopes of the city while thousands of others found shelter with family and friends.
The National Weather Service said the Susquehanna would crest about 15 feet above flood stage, some four feet below the tops of the levees.
Luzerne County Commissioner Todd Vonderheid said officials worried about the stability of the levees because the water was expected to press up against them for 48 hours.
The Agnes flood caused 50 deaths and more than $2 billion damage in Pennsylvania and remains the worst natural disaster in the state's history.
After Agnes left 20,000 homeless in Luzerne County, the Army Corps of Engineers undertook one of the most ambitious flood- control projects in the East, raising the existing levees by 3 to 5 feet. The $200 million project was finally completed in 2003.
Wilkes-Barre City Attorney Bill Vinsko said he helped evacuate his wife and two small children, his parents and his law office before heading to city hall, where he helped man the command post. …