Days of rain turn into fatal East Coast flooding

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. - September 9, 2011

The damage was concentrated along the Susquehanna River in Wilkes-Barre and other communities along the river. The National Weather Service said the Susquehanna crested above 38 feet Thursday night - below the top of the levee system protecting residents in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Lee's impact was felt widely in already waterlogged Pennsylvania, as authorities closed countless roadways, including some heavily traveled interstates, and evacuation shelters were opened to serve the many displaced people. Similar scenarios played out in Maryland and New York, but the fading storm's wrath was also felt from Connecticut to Virginia.

President Barack Obama declared states of emergency in Pennsylvania and New York early Friday, clearing the way for federal aid.

Rose Simko was among some 75,000 residents of Wilkes-Barre and neighboring communities who left Thursday under a mandatory evacuation order. As she packed her belongings into a car and prepared to drive away from her home, which sits about 150 feet from Wilkes-Barre's levee, she said she knew she had to get out.

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

Evacuees were told to expect to stay at least until Sunday or Monday, and it will be some time before officials get a handle on the damage that included a partial bridge collapse in northern Pennsylvania, vehicles and other property swept away, and failed sewage treatment plants.

"We're going to have some damage, but you won't know until it's over," said Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton.

The flooding was fed by drenching rains from Tropical Storm Lee that continued for days, and followed a little more than a week the dousing that Hurricane Irene gave the East Coast. In some areas of Pennsylvania the rainfall totals hit 9 inches or more, on top of what was already a relatively wet summer.

People in many small towns and rural areas in central Pennsylvania scrambled to get their families and their belongings out of harm's way as waters sometimes rose with frightening speed.

Harrisburg evacuated 6,000 to 10,000 residents in low-lying areas, while in Luzerne County, Pa., which includes Wilkes-Barre, the evacuation order covered all communities along the Susquehanna River that were flooded in the historic Hurricane Agnes deluge of 1972.

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 a long time since they've 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.

Late Thursday, Wilkes-Barre city crews scrambled to plug holes in the city's elaborate flood control system with sandbags. The river's dramatic rise began to slow, giving hope that the walls and earthen mounds would hold.

In nearby places unprotected by the levee system, however, emergency officials expected catastrophic flooding of 800 to 900 structures, as the river was likely to crest above some rooftops.

At least four deaths in Pennsylvania were at least partially attributed to flooding, while a fifth person was reported missing.

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

"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."

Randy Gockley, director of emergency management in Lancaster County, Pa., said a motorist near Lititz drowned inside a car early Thursday after a creek topped its banks. Another man was swept away while trying to wade through rushing flood waters, Gockley said.

Police in nearby Northern Lebanon Township said motorist William Canon was struck and killed by another vehicle after his was swamped by water. Police said he was trying to warn other drivers of the rising water when another man struck him and fled. The other motorist was arrested.

The rainfall caused problems in other parts of the East Coast, with fire officials in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., reporting that two people, including a child, died when they were swept away in rain-swollen waters Thursday night.

The heavy rains also shut down parts of the Capitol Beltway in Fairfax County, Va.; some portions have reopened. As many as 10 inches of rain have fallen in some places in the area around Washington since Wednesday.

In northeast Maryland, most of the 1,000 residents of Port Deposit were told to evacuate after the massive Conowingo Dam, upstream on the Susquehanna, opened its spill gates, and hundreds more were told to leave their homes in Havre de Grace, where the river meets the Chesapeake Bay. Shelters were opened in Perryville and Aberdeen, with river levels projected to be their highest since Hurricane Agnes.

Anne Arundel County, Md., police were treating the death of a Pasadena man as a drowning, pending autopsy results, after he was pulled from flood waters near his home.

There were also mandatory evacuations in a neighborhood along the Housatonic River in Shelton, Conn., just as residents were mopping up from the mess Hurricane Irene left behind.

"I even have fish swimming in my garage, that's a first," Brian Johnson told the Connecticut Post. "There's minnows swimming in there."

The mayor of Binghamton, N.Y., said severe Susquehanna River flooding was the worst in more than 60 years. Twenty thousand people were ordered to head for higher ground, and only emergency officials were allowed in the city.


Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Matthew Barakat in Vienna, Va.; Seth Borenstein in Washington; Chris Carola and Rik Stevens in Albany, N.Y.; Alex Dominguez in Port Deposit, Md.; Mary Esch in Schenectady, N.Y.; Jim Fitzgerald in White Plains, N.Y.; Michael Hill in Oneonta, N.Y.; Peter Jackson in Harrisburg, Pa.; Kasey Jones in Baltimore, and Randy Pennell in Philadelphia.

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