Saturday, September 10, 2011

The water this time

In 1972 a storm named Agnes did a drunkard's walk from the Yucatan Peninsula, through the Gulf of Mexico, across the Florida panhandle and Georgia and both Carolinas, then into the Atlantic, where it turned and came back onto land through (well, near) New York City and parked itself over upstate New York, dumping many many gallons of rain into the headwaters of the Susquehanna, which carried those waters downstream, shattered the sandbag levees that had been built along its banks in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and utterly devastated the Wyoming Valley.

It was an enormous flood. Horrendous. It destroyed thousands of homes, caused billions of dollars in damage - in 1972 dollars. It was a once-in-a-century storm. A once-in-a-lifetime event.

The storm that pounded eastern and central Pennsylvania this week was worse.

It was the remnants of Hurricane Lee, come to visit us from the Gulf. It followed hard on the heels of Hurricane Irene, which crawled along the eastern seaboard and did damage that could best be described as "capricious" - horrible damage here, no damage in the next town over. Irene arrived shortly after a somewhat rare, somewhat powerful earthquake rattled much of the northeastern United States and regions from the Carolinas to Canada.

It wasn't a storm that blew through quickly and was gone. It was a storm that ran like a locomotive from the Baltimore/Washington area, vertically through the eastern-center line of Pennsylvania, and up into upstate New York. The train of storms dumped gallon after gallon of rain onto lands already saturated by Hurricane Irene. And then, with the land at the point that it couldn't absorb any more water, it sat over upstate New York and, like Agnes, dumped inches and inches of rain into the headwaters of the Susquehanna.

The Susquehanna rose to levels not seen since Agnes - perhaps not seen ever before in recorded history.

After the devastation of Agnes, northeastern Pennsylvania's powerful veteran Congressman Daniel J. Flood - complete with waxed handlebar moustache, opera cape, and devastating right hook* - used and abused his many years of experience and influence in Congress and his powerful committee positions to steer massive amounts of federal money towards rebuilding the Wyoming Valley, especially the hard-hit Wilkes-Barre / Kingston / Forty Fort region. Decades later, under the stewardship of Paul Kanjorski, another long-term congressman from Northeastern Pennsylvania, a series of levees was completed along the Susquehanna River in the Wilkes-Barre / Kingston / Forty-Fort region, levees that would protect against an Agnes-level flood at 41 feet - plus a few more feet of wall on top, just in case.

The Susquehanna nearly overtopped these levees this week. Nearly, but it didn't. As of this writing, Wilkes-Barre and Kingston and Forty Fort have been spared the devastation they experienced in 1972. The levees held, bottling up all that water.

Creating a bottleneck to protect one area causes problems elsewhere. West Pittston, just upriver from Wilkes-Barre, has sustained damage in excess of what it experienced in 1972. Jenkins Township, Shickshinny, and other communities not protected by levees have experienced massive devastation. Even if areas destroyed in 1972 fared better now thanks to levees, the increased destruction elsewhere will again result in a multi-billion dollar repair bill.

A multi-billion dollar repair bill in a time of recession and austerity.

And our representatives in Congress? Twenty-six year veteran Representative Paul Kanjorski was ousted in a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment last year. His replacement is Lou Barletta, who came in with the backing of the Tea Party. A thirty year veteran of the Senate, Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter, was voted out in the primaries, and the Democrats lost the seat in the subsequent election.

So. Now we find ourselves with billions of dollars in damages and no Congressional veteran like Daniel Flood, Paul Kanjorski, or Arlen Specter to see to it that the funds to clean up, fix up, and rebuild the region. Instead we have two Freshmen Republicans who owe their positions to the support of backers like the "Club for Growth" and the Tea Party, who are expected to fall in line behind leaders like Eric Cantor, who demands major cuts elsewhere before any funding can be funneled into recovery. Even the funding for river gauges themselves is contentious - as was widely reported a few months ago, river gauges are funded through Congressional earmarks, the great whipping boy of the austerity-pushing Republicans.

Recovery will not be swift. It took years to clean up and recover from Agnes, and final projects were not completed begun** until nearly a quarter century after the flood. This will take a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of hard work, and a lot of political deal-making and arm-twisting. Are our members of Congress up to the task?

*It might have been a right cross.
**The raising of the levees to their nominal height of 41 feet (with a bonus of three feet at the top) actually began after the catastrophic floods of 1996, twenty-four years after Agnes, when Representative Paul Kanjorski cordially invited President Clinton to tour Northeastern Pennsylvania and see the damage. The project was completed in 2006, just in time to be tested by Hurricane Ivan later that year. Paul Kanjorski was voted out of office four years later. And less than ten months after that, the levees he worked so hard to have built saved Wilkes-Barre, and Kingston, and Forty-Fort from the destruction they experienced in 1972.

Title reference: "The Fire Next Time" by James Baldwin, which is itself a reference to a line in an old Negro Spiritual which talks about how God may keep his promise to Noah to never destroy the world with water again.

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