3 FEET FROM EVACUATION

9:12 pm Feature Stories

Ed.note: The following 1A story was part of the team coverage that won the 2003 first place award for breaking news coverage from the Associated Press Managing Editors association.

Wilkes-Barre Times Leader

September 19, 2004 Sunday MAIN EDITION

BYLINE: DAWN SHURMAITIS, For the Times Leader

It worked.

As the Susquehanna River swelled Saturday to levels not seen since 1996, officials and residents alike kept their eyes on the levee system protecting the Wyoming Valley.

Although flash floods spawned by remnants of Hurricane Ivan forced hundreds from their homes, and low-lying communities experienced heavy, widespread flooding, recent improvements and technological advances helped prevent disaster.

Had the river been forecasted to rise another 3 feet to 38 feet, Luzerne County officials would have requested a voluntary, valley-wide evacuation. Levee protection ends at 41 feet with the new dikes.

Luzerne County Commissioner Steve Urban, head of the county flood protection authority, said he felt “very confident” that the levee system would hold. “There are no soft spots. Everything appears to be working as planned.”

Flooding was spawned by 6.03 inches of rain that fell in 36 hours, ending about 11 a.m. Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.

As the river begins to drop below an expected 4 a.m. crest of 36 feet, county officials will begin assessing damages. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell will sweep the Wyoming Valley by helicopter this afternoon to survey flooded areas.

Saturday, Rendell requested federal aid for 34 Pennsylvania counties, including Luzerne, Lackawanna and Wyoming.

Urban said the county, already $15 million in the red, doesn’t have money to pay for disaster relief or recovery. “Repair is beyond the capability of the county,” he said shortly after the county commissioners declared a state of emergency.

Officials said this flood was a “mirror-image” of the ‘96 flood, when the river crested at 34.6 feet, forcing the evacuation of nearly 100,000 on both sides of the Susquehanna. High waters caused about $100 million in damages. In 1972, the Agnes flood caused $1 billion worth of damage to the Wyoming Valley.

Luzerne County Emergency Management Director Al Bardar said the river could stay at about 35 feet for several hours before receding. The river is expected to be at 22 feet by Monday afternoon.

The $177 million levee-raising project began in Exeter in 1997. Since 1996, the levee system has been raised 3 to 5 feet at varying points along the river.

“It won’t top the levee system. It’ll never happen,” said Luzerne County spokeswoman Kathy Bozinski Saturday. “There have been numerous changes to the levee system since Agnes. It’s a different Wyoming Valley.”

Still, there are no guarantees. “It’s a new dike system. It might have weak spots,” Bardar said. “We wouldn’t want to push it to the limit.”

The worst-case scenario included a break in the dike, a soft spot where water could leak through and flood in old tunnels beneath the levee.

Starting at 11 a.m. Saturday, county road and bridge workers began a five-hour erection of 140-foot-long interlocking stop-gates across each end of Market Street Bridge.

Similar gates were erected at Solomon Creek in South Wilkes-Barre; in Forty Fort; behind the Luzerne County Courthouse; and on Route 11 in Edwardsville near the Kmart, which saw 5 feet of floodwaters.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Bardar said of preliminary countywide damage assessment that will begin today. County engineers will inspect roads, bridges and general infrastructure. Roadway erosion is expected to be a major problem.

With a 36-foot crest, the following areas were expected to flood: Susquehanna Avenue in West Pittston, River Road in Port Blanchard, the Plainsville section of Plains Township, Canal Street in West Nanticoke, Italy Street in Mocanaqua and low-lying areas of Shickshinny.

EMA hoped that advance warnings, coupled with common sense and lessons learned from past floods, would allow everyone who needed to get out of harm’s way and high waters to evacuate well before any situation turned dire.

Today, county and local officials will tour the hardest hit areas, which include south Wilkes-Barre, Shickshinny, Mocanaqua, Harding, Ashley and Pittston Township.

Initial damage assessments had Lackawanna and Wyoming counties harder hit than Luzerne, Bardar said Saturday. County officials on Saturday could not offer any damage estimates for this latest flood.

County engineers reported a lot of minor roadway damage and washouts, but no major damage to county roads. Throughout Saturday and overnight, county employees checked the levee for common problems such as seepage and sloughing, which happens when soil gets very saturated and “falls apart like Jell-O,” said county civil engineer Joe Gibbons.

The Market Street Bridge, which was closed about 11 a.m. Saturday, may re-open today, depending on how fast the river recedes, Gibbons said.

Flooding closed other bridges, including the Eighth Street Bridge in Wyoming and the Water Street Bridge in West Pittston.

Route 11 at the Mark II Plaza in Edwardsville was closed at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Officials could not say Saturday night when it would reopen.

County officials said the Commission on Economic Opportunity may provide some emergency funds for cleanup and to help replace appliances like water heaters. The Red Cross will also help with cleanup and provide temporary shelter if necessary.

According to PPL, about 850 households lost power Saturday. Power was restored to about half those homes by 9 p.m. Saturday.

As he managed the county’s emergency, Bardar learned his own home in Ashley had been flooded. “The water’s up to my chest,” he said. “There’s no heat. Electricity is out.”

The flood put Bardar named director six years ago after nine years with EMA center stage. The specter of an evacuation shadowed his every move. Waiting too long to issue the order could put lives in danger. But jumping the gun could create major hardship for those forced from their homes.

“We have to ride it out and hope the experts are right,” Bardar said as radio scanners crackled and EMA staffers issued the latest news over the PA system.

At 4 p.m, when the National Weather Service downgraded the crest from 36 to 35 feet, the tension at the EMA popped like a balloon. “That’s big. A foot is big,” said Bardar. The estimated crest was raised back to 36 feet late Saturday.

Throughout Saturday morning, manholes blew. And rumors flew. Campers stranded on the river in Harding. Trailer homes floating down the Susquehanna. Dam openings in upstate New York. Soft spots on the levee. Cracks in the courthouse foundation.

Three hurricanes in quick succession depleted the local roster of Red Cross staffers and volunteers, according to Emergency Services Director Amy Gabriel.

“The problem is so many volunteers are either currently deployed or just back from Florida. Our traditional support system is pretty much depleted,” said Gabriel, a Penn State season ticket holder who missed Saturday’s game. “All our neighboring chapters are maxed out. We’re pretty much on our own. It’s a challenge.”

Typically, the disaster plan calls for four members of the Red Cross to man each of five emergency centers opened. Because of manpower shortages, those number of volunteers fluctuated between one and four.

By 4:30 p.m. Saturday, the Red Cross already started closing or consolidating some centers because they remained empty. Officials said 70 percent of evacuees typically stay with friends or family.

Municipal officials were kept up to date via telephone conferences with the EMA that began at 7 a.m. During an 11 a.m. briefing, the National Weather Service said remnants of Hurricane Ivan, downgraded to a tropical depression, exceeded rainfall amounts from the flood of ‘96, the last serious flood emergency to hit Luzerne County.

Two operators answered questions called in to Rumor Control, which had up-to-date information on road and bridge closings and evacuation orders. Throughout the day, staffers updated the big board with time and river level.

Staffers and volunteers who began arriving at the center at 2:30 a.m. came armed with slickers, rain boots, umbrellas, a change of clothes and toothbrushes.

Old Forge was particularly hard hit because of the confluence of the Susquehanna and Lackawanna rivers. The Lackawanna was uncharacteristically high, which caused severe problems in the Scranton area, Bozinski said.

While all eyes remained on the ever-rising river, flash flooding of area creeks such as Toby in Shavertown, Mill Creek in Avoca and Solomon in South Wilkes-Barre created havoc for homes and businesses.

Numerous county employees expected to spend the night at the EMA headquarters of Water Street, keeping their eyes on the river a few hundred yards away.

Said Bardar: “I’ll relax when we see this baby level off.”

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