Corbett seeks federal disaster designation

An Action News viewer sent in this picture Thursday morning saying, "On the news this morning you briefly mentioned the flooding of the Susquehanna River. These are pictures from various areas up near my hometown in Bradford County, Pa which is located about an hour and a half north of Wilkes Barre/Scranton. Please keep everyone in your thoughts and prayers."

September 8, 2011 7:33:20 PM PDT
Tens of thousands of people from the area overwhelmed by Hurricane Agnes nearly four decades ago left their homes Thursday as widespread flooding brought on by the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee lashed already-waterlogged Pennsylvania and caused five deaths in the state.

Between 5 and 9 inches of rain fell in some parts of the state a little more than a week after the remnants of Hurricane Irene doused the East Coast. The soaking sent numerous waterways over their banks, including one northern Pennsylvania creek that undermined a bridge abutment, causing a partial collapse.

Mindful of the damage left by Irene less than two weeks ago, and fearful of what is to come, Pennsylvania's lawmakers in Washington urged President Barack Obama in a joint letter to grant a request by Gov. Tom Corbett to declare the flooded parts of the state a federal disaster area.

Luzerne County officials called for a mandatory evacuation of all communities along the Susquehanna River that were flooded in the historic Agnes deluge of 1972 - an order affecting up to 75,000 residents. Officials in Harrisburg said they evacuated 6,000 to 10,000 residents from low-lying areas.

Rose Simko, 44, lives about 150 feet from the levee in Wilkes-Barre. On Thursday she was packing up her car and heading to stay with family on higher ground. Though worried her house will be inundated, Simko knew she had to leave.

"Everything is replaceable," she said, "but my life is not."

The river was projected to crest at 40.8 feet - essentially the same height as the levee system protecting riverfront communities including Wilkes-Barre and Kingston - at 2 a.m. Friday. The river reached 40.9 feet during the Agnes flood.

The rate at which the river is rising has slowed dramatically, according to Jim Brozena, executive director of the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority. It had been rising by as much as a foot an hour, but he said Thursday evening it was closer to a couple of inches an hour.

He noted that a recently replaced bridge linking Jenkins Township with Wyoming Borough was several feet lower than the old span. Though the new bridge was built to withstand a 100-year flood, the structure is acting more like a dam as the water pushes against it.

"If you're creating a dam, you're creating more problems," Brozena said, adding that it's worsening the flooding of homes around the bridge.

Residents were ordered to leave by 4 p.m. Thursday, and both main bridges crossing the Susquehanna into Wilkes-Barre were closed to traffic.

Luzerne County Emergency Management Director Steve Bekanich said the Susquehanna was already at the second-highest level in its recorded history, just behind the historic Agnes flood. He couldn't estimate how many people heeded the evacuation order but said that many thousands of residents had left.

"Everybody who wanted to leave, left," Bekanich said. "Those who didn't want to leave, we didn't have the authority to compel them to."

Shelters that offered space for close to 5,000 people filled up, grateful for a dry space. About 75 people and five pets were staying at a Red Cross shelter at Solomon-Plains Elementary School in Plains Township, outside Wilkes-Barre, many clustered around a big-screen TV to watch news coverage of the flooding.

Christina Holmes, 38, came with her fiancDe and three children. Before leaving their apartment in Wilkes-Barre, they unplugged appliances and picked up items off the floor. Holmes said she's been told to expect to stay at the shelter at least through Sunday.

"I'm trying to make the best of it," she said. "I brought the (playing) cards. I brought the games for the kids."

She said it's been too long since they'd seen sunny, blue skies. "We've had rain for about five straight days and it's like, as soon as it's done, it picks back up," Holmes said.

Significant flooding was already occurring in riverfront communities not protected by the levee system, including West Pittston, Plymouth Township and Shickshinny, Bekanich said. Fire Chief Jay Delaney said the evacuation went smoothly and included hospitals and nursing homes.

Sandbags were stacked on both sides of the Susquehanna. City officials said the levy system appeared to be holding up, but said there were some scattered leaks, many of which were quickly patched.

"We're confident the levees are going to work," Bekanich said. But if the Susquehanna goes higher than the levee system, 10,000 structures could be flooded, he said.

"If we, God forbid, overtop the levee system, we're looking at catastrophic damage throughout the whole county that borders the river communities," he said. "This is a scary situation."

Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton Leighton told residents to "prepare themselves for an extended evacuation" of 72 hours. So far there were no injuries reported, but he was resigned to the fact that there would be damage.

"We're gonna have some damage and you won't know until it's over," he said. A curfew lasting from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. Friday was in effect in Luzerne County.

In places unprotected by the levee system, emergency officials expect catastrophic flooding of 800 to 900 structures. Flood stage in many of those half-dozen municipalities is 23 feet, meaning they could be inundated with 19 feet of water. Officials say they expected the river to crest above rooftops.

Farther downriver in Union County, several homes along the Susquehanna were evacuated, including parts of downtown Lewisburg. County emergency operations manager Stan Hudson said much of Lewisburg was shut down, including Bucknell University.

"We're going to be flooded in," Hudson said. "We're going to be stuck here for a while."

More than 1,200 members of the Pennsylvania National Guard were mobilized. Guardsmen had flown at least 30 missions, mostly evacuations, across central and northeastern Pennsylvania, said Sgt. Matt Jones.

At least five deaths were at least partially attributed to flooding in central Pennsylvania. A sixth person was reported missing.

The body of a man in his 70s was recovered from a home Wednesday after his basement walls collapsed, Derry Township Police Chief Patrick O'Rourke said.

The township near Hershey saw the Swatara Creek reach 27 feet on Thursday - nearly four times its flood stage of 7 feet - and submerge a sewage treatment plant.

"We took a direct blow yesterday," O'Rourke told The Associated Press. "You can't get from one side of the town to the other."

In Lancaster County, an 8-year-old boy died Thursday after being pulled from a storm drain, while a motorist drowned inside a car near Lititz after a creek topped its banks.

A man was also swept away while trying to wade through rushing flood waters in Penn Township, according to Lancaster County Emergency Management Director Randy Gockley.

In Northern Lebanon Township, police said stranded motorist William Canon was struck and killed by another vehicle that fled. The other driver has been arrested.

In Harrisburg, the Susquehanna was forecast to eventually rise to 29 feet, six feet above what is consider major flood stage. At the governor's mansion, first lady Susan Corbett helped take furnishings from the first floor to higher levels. Outside, sandbags were stacked.

"We're really preparing for it (water) to be on the first floor" for the first time since Agnes, she said.

Near Lancaster, the 126-year-old Siegrist's Mill covered bridge - which had survived Agnes and was on the National Register of Historic Places - was washed away by the Chiques Creek.

PennDOT closed hundreds of roads across the eastern half of the state, including a temporary closure of the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia.

Four bridges spanning the Delaware River between Pennsylvania and New Jersey were closed, as was part of Interstate 81 and a 39-mile stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike between the Reading and Harrisburg East interchanges.

PennDOT reopened a stretch of Interstate 80 between the Buckhorn and Lightstreet exits in Columbia County after it had been closed for more than 15 hours due to flooding.

Corbett declared a Level 1 emergency - last done on Sept. 11, 2001 - and ordered state offices in Harrisburg, Reading and Scranton closed Thursday and Friday, affecting about 25,000 nonessential employees. He cautioned residents in flood-afflicted areas to exercise caution.

"We face a public health emergency because sewage treatment plants are underwater and no longer working," Corbett said. "Flood water is toxic and polluted. If you don't have to be in it, keep out."

The governor said he remains concerned about water pollution caused by the destruction of upriver sewage and water treatment plants. Ten plants along the river were out of commission by Thursday night.

"All that damage is coming down this way. It's toxic," he said.

"We're worried about people even getting near the water" until it becomes more diluted, he said. "The solution is the dilution."

In the Philadelphia area, mudslides and signal system failures halted some commuter train service; along one line in Jenkintown, the ground washed out beneath part of the tracks. A church wall collapsed in the city's Germantown section while a warehouse fell down in the suburb of Ambler.

A woman plucked from her Hummelstown home by rescuers said she was glad to be alive after a harrowing ordeal. Donna MacLeod was afraid to leave her home when she was advised to leave Wednesday night, but called 911 Thursday morning after the first floor of her house was flooded by 3 feet of water.

"I'm heartsick," she told The Associated Press. "I know I lost two cars and everything that was in my basement and everything that was on the first floor. But I have my life and I have my dog so that's good."


Scolforo reported from Hummelstown, Pa. Randy Pennell and Kathy Matheson in Philadelphia, Peter Jackson in Harrisburg and Genaro C. Armas in State College contributed to this report.

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