Heavy, soaking rains of up to 7 inches came a little more than a week after Hurricane Irene moved through the state. The massive rainfalls sent numerous small waterways over their banks and promised to bring major flooding to low-lying and flood-prone areas on Thursday.
Two people were reported killed in the flooding, including an elderly Dauphin County man whose basement collapsed Wednesday afternoon as he tried to bail water out of his flooded home. A motorist who became trapped in rising waters was also found dead, according to officials.
Derry Township Police Chief Patrick O'Rourke said the body of a man in his 70s was recovered from the home after a friend reported the man had failed to meet him as planned.
"We took a direct blow yesterday," O'Rourke told The Associated Press early Thursday. "You can't get from one side of the town to the other."
Lancaster County Emergency Management Director Randy Gockley said a motorist in Elizabeth Township, near Lititz, drowned inside a car early Tuesday after the Hammer Creek topped its banks and inundated Route 322. Rescuers reported between 3 and 4 feet of water covered the road, Gockley said.
Gockley said rescuers were also investigating a report of another person swept away by flood waters but had no further details.
Intense rains caused flooding that closed roadways across eastern Pennsylvania, including eastbound lanes of Interstate 76, the Schuylkill Expressway, in Philadelphia and Interstate 81 in northern Lebanon County. A bridge spanning the Delaware River between New Hope, Bucks County and Lambertville, N.J., closed Thursday morning after flood waters carried debris down river and into the first span.
PennDOT spokesman Gene Blaum said as mud and rocks from a land slide also need to be cleaned up before traffic can start moving on the Schuylkill Expressway.
The dangerous travel conditions prompted school closures across eastern Pennsylvania, including the northeastern part of the state where mandatory evacuations were ordered in Luzerne County for all areas affected by flooding from Hurricane Agnes in 1972.
Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Ruth Miller said that evacuation order affects tens of thousands of people.
Flooding is so widespread it's hard to say what areas are most affected, Miller said. She expects problems to get worse before they get better in Harrisburg, where the Susquehanna River is expected to crest at more than 28 feet, up from earlier forecasts.
Rainfall totals of at least 2 inches were reported by Thursday morning across southeastern Pennsylvania, with more than 6 inches reported in Springtown, Bucks County and over 7 inches reported in Forks Township, Northampton County.
Fears of major flooding prompted the state to close down the Capitol Complex and Harrisburg state offices as well as those in Reading and Scranton.
"We don't want anybody to risk their lives trying to get to work," said Gary Miller, a spokesman for Gov. Tom Corbett.
State officials urged residents to avoid unnecessary travel and to stay away from standing water on roadways. The Pennsylvania National Guard deployed troops to assist in response efforts, including the evacuation of residents in Manheim, Lancaster County.
O'Rourke said rescuers in his hard-hit community used boats to ferry trapped residents from their homes. One boat carrying seven residents from a flooded mobile home park capsized, forcing its occupants to hold on to trees until a second boat arrived and plucked them from the water.
O'Rourke said his township is cut off from neighboring communities by the Swatara Creek, which reached record flood stage of just over 16 feet Wednesday night and is projected to reach more than 24 feet.
Derry Township's emergency communications equipment is endangered by rising waters, O'Rourke said. The equipment is in the basement of a building adjacent to the creek.
Officials were organizing shelters to serve displaced residents across much of eastern Pennsylvania.
Tony Higgins was one of four people to spend Wednesday night in a shelter in Cumberland County after a sheriff's deputy knocked on his door, telling him he should get away from the rapidly rising Yellow Breeches Creek, which had already sent more than an inch of water into his New Cumberland home.
"I'm not used to a cot because I've got a slipped disk, but these people have been great," Higgins said.
Higgins had planned to stay with a friend, but he was evacuated as well and Higgins ended up at the Red Cross-run shelter.
Red Cross spokesman Allen White said the Cumberland County shelter was being moved to an elementary school in nearby Camp Hill in anticipation of greater demand in the coming days.