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Sunday, June 24, 2012

40 years after the flood

Until last September, if you spoke to anyone in Northeastern Pennsylvania about "the flood" they would know exactly what you meant. Some old-timers might remember the St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1936, but for everyone else "the flood" meant one thing.

Agnes.

Floods don't get names, not like that. Agnes was a Tropical Storm that, in June 1972, blew along the Eastern Seaboard up from the Gulf of Mexico on a meandering, lazy course that took it over land, over the Atlantic, and then back over land - through New York City and then up into upstate New York. Northeastern Pennsylvania got smacked with the outer bands (just like with Irene in 2011, which also hit New York City but then set its sights on New England), but the real damage was done when the remnant of Agnes parked itself over the headwaters of the Susquehanna (just like Lee a week after Irene last year - though Lee also dumped rain on Northeastern Pennsylvania for days, as did Agnes.)

The Susquehanna rose and rose, threatening to overtop the levees that had built in the wake of the flood of '36. A heroic effort was made to augment the dikes with sandbags. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for the flood zone. Many complied. Some refused to leave.

And then, in a horrific moment, the sandbags gave way. The river came through. Photos captured the terror of people who had moments before been fighting to hold back the river with sandbags now running for their lives.

Very few people died in the flood itself, and mostly from heart attacks and things like that. Those who refused to evacuate had to be rescued by boat, sometimes from upper stories, sometimes from rooftops.

I had  a relative who lived in the flood zone - my father's mother's sister's mother-in-law. She didn't think the river would break through the levees. She didn't think she would be affected. She was wrong. She had to be evacuated from a third story window.

I was just four when Agnes hit. Now it would be considered crazy to take a four-year-old into a flood zone, even a month or more after the waters had receded. But things were different back then. And the visit to this relative's house left a memory that has stayed with me forever.

Even at that age I loved books. Comic books, paperbacks, hardbacks, books of all sorts. What I saw broke my heart.

We were in a large empty room. Cleanup had obviously been going on for some time at that point. But some things just couldn't be cleaned. Like the stains on the ceiling.

The room I was in had probably been their living room. Maybe their library, even. It was where their books had been. And when the floodwaters came through, those books were knocked off their shelves, caught up in the water, and floated up to the ceiling.

The water didn't stop at the first floor. It chased my relatives up to their third floor. So the first floor was filled completely. The books rose to the top and were pressed against the ceiling, at least until they absorbed enough water to sink. In the meantime, they had left an impression.

The ceiling of that room was tattooed with the colors of the covers of hundreds of books that had been pressed against it.

It was a strange and beautiful sight, and horrifying at the same time. I knew that all those books that someone had once read and loved enough to buy were now garbage heaped in piles along the streets. Just like everything else that these people had ever owned.

Thirty-nine years later it happened again. Not in Wilkes-Barre or in Kingston, where my relatives had lived. They were protected by a levee-raising project that was completed in response to Agnes. This time it was in West Pittston and Shickshnny and other places. People lost everything because of the power of a flood.

I wonder if in thirty-nine years people will remember Lee the way we remember Agnes?

3 comments:

Water Damage Melbourne said...

Great post about the flood.

hedera said...

I don't have any stories like that, thank God. But I remember a flood on the Napa River when I was in high school (which means somewhere between 1961 and 1963) where every male in my high school class spent the night stacking sandbags on the river banks. Our house, fortunately, was on the higher west side of the valley, and as long as the Napa Creek didn't overflow too much, we were OK. I'm happy to say the Napa River is now being managed with actual flood plains instead of concrete channels.

Just aside, can you do something about your CAPTCHA? It took me 4 refreshes to get an option where I could actually read both words.

D.B. Echo said...

hedera, I've been running into that too. And much as I'd like to be able to drop the CAPTCHAs, there's a situation going on right now with troll attacks that may spill over onto Another Monkey. I don't want to make things any easier for them.