In wake of Irene, flood fears paramount in Pa.

August 28, 2011 6:13:57 PM PDT
Swollen creeks and rising rivers from northeast Pennsylvania down to Philadelphia have grabbed the wary eyes of residents and officials, amid concern more flooding could arise in coming days from the rains brought by Irene.

Homes by the Schuylkill River in Norristown were inundated with muddy water on Sunday as it crested to more than 15 feet by mid-afternoon. Along the Delaware River, which snakes north from Philadelphia to Easton, some shelters were being opened in advance of that river's forecast cresting to 32 feet by Monday morning.

In Forks Township, riverside residents were urged to seek higher ground, but Warren County Emergency Management Coordinator Frank Wheatley said no mandatory evacuations were planned.

At the 80-member Norristown Boat Club, members had a prime view of the swollen Schuylkill, lounging on the porch as the river crested and the water lapped the front steps. A few feet away, a speed-limit sign was almost entirely submerged.

Club member Peggy Wilson, 56, of Norristown, said it was the second-worst flooding she'd seen on the Schuylkill since joining in the 1980s.

"Lots of cleaning up," she said. "After the water goes away, then we have mud. And that's the worst, because it gets on everything."

Bud Buono's house on stilts was surrounded by water, reachable only by boat. The 51-year-old, who is also a member of the boat club, said he'd gotten everything out of his ground-floor basement ahead of the flood. But neighbors with older, bungalow-style houses weren't so fortunate - they had water in their living spaces.

"You take the good with the bad down here," said Buono, who's lived on the Schuylkill for 30 years. "It's a different breed of people."

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter warned residents of the nation's fifth-largest city to stay home and off the roads as the clean-up continued, but also said the Schuylkill River remained a potent force and was expected to reach at least 15 feet.

"These are near-record highs," Nutter said of the flooding in some areas, adding that he didn't want residents to be lulled into a false sense of security. "We do not want folks to be deceived by what's going on."

Philadelphia and the surrounding region got six inches of rain overnight, and another inch was likely, waterlogging an already sodden part of the state that is in record territory for rainfall in August.

Residents in some of the city's low-lying areas began the day with the specter of rising water from the Schuylkill, which rose nearly four feet above its normal level.

Nutter lifted the city's state of emergency - the first since 1986 - and the city's mass transit agency was beginning to resume service. There were seven building collapses during the storm, but no injuries were reported. Some 21,000 in the city lost power.

Across the region, Irene generated widespread flooding, toppled trees, cut power to more than half a million homes and businesses and prompted water rescues. Three people were killed, including In central Pennsylvania, a camper was struck and killed by a tree toppled by the storm.

The National Weather Service put much of southeast Pennsylvania under a flood and flash flood warnings. Along the Delaware River from Easton south, residents watched and waited with that river expected to crest at 32 feet Monday morning. AccuWeather said that the potential for flooding could see all-time records "rivaling stages recorded during Hurricane Floyd in 1999."

In northeastern Pennsylvania, people in South Wilkes-Barre evacuated their homes after Solomon Creek spilled over its banks, WNEP-TV reported. In Wyoming County, the Dunlaps Grove Bridge near Mehoopany was covered by water from the Mehoopany Creek.

At Fort Indiantown Gap, the Pennsylvania National Guard monitored the storm and response in real time, plastering maps and operational data on a massive screen occupying much of one wall in a basement command center.

Col. Robert Hodgson said the big concern remained flooding.

The storm knocked out power to the base, but generators kept computers and communications up and running as commanders coordinated efforts, including the evacuation of about 150 people from Perkasie, Bucks County because of flooding. Guardsmen were also clearing out a Monroe County mobile home park.

Guard units were using eight-wheeled armored Stryker vehicles as part of their operations, which can ford 4 feet of water.

Rising waters will continue to be the chief concern for rescuers. Even as the rain moves out of Pennsylvania, National Guard officials will monitor rainfall in New York to anticipate downstream flooding.

"You're never quite sure when you're out of the woods," Hodgson told AP.

In Philadelphia, buses and trolleys run by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority resumed service, but regional rail to the suburbs remained closed. Philadelphia International Airport reopened at 4 p.m. with limited arrivals, but no departures, airport spokeswoman Victoria Lupica said.

At a shelter in suburban Darby set up by the American Red Cross, 71 people stayed the night, mostly chatting, reading, playing board games and seeking solace in the company of strangers.

"My son he brought a ball with him so he's playing basketball," said Shakeriah Brown, 32, a homemaker from Upper Darby. "They're little boys and they have so much energy to burn."

Shelter manager Drew Alexander said he'd expected more people, but that those who did stay remained positive.

"Storm damage got pretty hairy throughout the night with the tornado activity bouncing around, but with the attitude of the people we weathered it well," he said.

Bill Day, 54, who moved out of Darby a year ago, came back hoping to help some of his former neighbors clean up, but found them all still evacuated. As he surveyed the swollen waters covering the streets of his old neighborhood, he thought it was not nearly as bad as he had expected.

"Floyd was worse than this one," Day said of the 1999 hurricane. "I expected a lot more trees down."

At Philadelphia University, junior Laurel Brooks was up late Saturday tending to leaks in her fourth-floor dorm room. There is another floor above her, but she said she still "had 4 or 5 buckets around the living room and there was water leaking out of the electrical outlet."

Frank Holmes, 39, watched as water poured over Lincoln Drive, a main thoroughfare. While his home was not damaged, he said it was some of the worst he'd ever seen. He noted that, along with last week's earthquake, he had seen more from Mother Nature in the last few days than he had in his previous four decades.

"I had never felt an earthquake and I'd never seen anything like this," Holmes said as he watched the high waters swirl and took pictures. "All within a week and a half."

PECO said that 297,000 were without power while PPL said it had 200,000 customers without power. FirstEnergy Corp., owner of Met-Ed and other utilities, reported more than 75,000 outages.

Emergency officials said but all of the occupants of the collapsed buildings in Philadelphia had been accounted for, including 20 people from one multi-unit structure. A total of 179people were in three city shelters along with seven pets. In Hatboro, a man had to be rescued by boat after he drove onto a flooded road and ended up clinging to a tree.

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Rubinkam reported from Norristown, Pa. Randy Pennell contributed to this story from Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa.


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