Susquehanna River, PA Hurricane Agnes Flood of 1972
NEARLY 38 years ago – on June 23, 1972 – torrential rains from Tropical Storm Agnes led to the flooding of the Wyoming Valley.
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Many of us are quite familiar with the events: The Susquehanna River spilled over its banks and into our neighborhoods, causing such damage that President Richard Nixon, who would later visit the wreckage, called it the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.
Some people reading this might have been adults and homeowners at the time, and experienced great loss. Some were teenagers, old enough to realize what was happening, though not yet wise enough to understand its magnitude. Some, such as me, were young children, aware that something was wrong, yet unable to comprehend the devastation. And some readers, born after Agnes, have little knowledge of what actually happened that summer in their hometown and in other parts of Pennsylvania.
Some facts: Agnes, which previously had earned hurricane status, dumped an estimated 28 trillion, 100 billion gallons of rain on the upper Susquehanna watershed from June 21 to 23. In Pennsylvania, an estimated $2.8 billion in damage was incurred – translating to about $14 billion today. More than 68,000 homes and 3,000 businesses were destroyed, leaving more than 220,000 people homeless. In Luzerne County, more than 25,000 homes and businesses were either destroyed or damaged. Five bridges were washed away. About 80,000 Wyoming Valley residents were evacuated.
One thing I’ve realized in thinking about all of this is that people my age, about 42, will be the last generation to remember Agnes. Though we were only children, we did experience it. And perhaps with that comes some responsibility.
ARTICLE FROM 1972
After Agnes: The Agony of Wilkes-Barre
THE statistics have been recorded and the books shut on the devastation caused by tropical storm Agnes two months ago: 118 dead, 116,000 dwellings damaged or destroyed, more than $3 billion worth of property damaged, 206 counties and 27 cities turned into official disaster areas. But the private suffering of its victims is more difficult to measure and—so far—without end. TIME Correspondent Marguerite Michaels recently visited Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in the area hardest hit by the storm. Her report:
The brown mud from the Susquehanna River has now dried to a white dust. It settles over everything and rims the eyes red. Only 10% of downtown Wilkes-Barre, once under 5 ft. of water, has reopened for business. Piles of debris still clutter the streets. Skulls and limbs washed from the Forty Fort Cemetery are still turning up in backyards. Block after block of houses have been gutted so that you can see from the front yard through to the back. Shrubbery has turned brown-gray; lawns are expanses of dried, cracked mud.
Of the 15,000 families still left homeless in the Wyoming Valley, only 7,100 have been housed by HUD. Some remain camped in the evacuation center an hour out of town. Others are living in the partially damaged second floors of their houses, without water or electricity. Most are still with friends or relatives in quarters so cramped that they are fast breeding enemies. The elderly were the hardest hit. Almost a third of those affected were over 55. Many are living in hotel rooms until HUD can move them into mobile homes or new apartment buildings that have been designed for them.
HUD is now delivering 120 new trailers a day, and is still far behind the demand. But the majority of Wilkes-Barre citizens hope one day to repair or rebuild their own houses. Many Wyoming Valley residents are of Polish and Slovak stock. Their hearts are in their homes; to possess a home is to possess everything. And they are the core of the movement to bring the valley back.
Frank Nowak, 43, a maintenance man for the local RCA plant, is lucky because his house is still standing. He figures it will take a $22,000 loan to rebuild it the way it was. Thumbing through an album showing the house before the flood, with its trim lawn and clipped rose garden, Nowak says: "If I get this place fixed up and somebody comes knocking on my door to say urban renewal is going to tear it down, there's going to be a fight."