Susquehanna at a record-breaking crest

Posted: September 09, 2011

WILKES-BARRE - Tension gripped Luzerne County anew Friday as authorities battled a record-breaking crest of the Susquehanna River that sent waters surging to the lips of levees designed to stave off a devastating flood.

The battle lasted into the night, and at 8 p.m., Gov. Corbett said the waters were finally receding. "We've turned a corner," said Luzerne County Commissioner Stephen Urban.

But the governor cautioned at an evening briefing, "This is not over." He said of the $250 million levees, "I am praying that they hold - we hope that they hold - we believe that they will hold. But I do not want to see what will happen if they fail."

It had been a long day. After a temporary sense of relief in the early morning, officials realized by afternoon that damaged water gauges had given incorrect readings of the swollen Susquehanna, which had risen to 43 feet - about five feet higher than initially reported.

The water pressure stressed levees protecting Wilkes-Barre to beyond what they were built to withstand, and left some towns harder-hit by Tropical Storm Lee than they were in 1972 by Hurricane Agnes.

"We are at the extreme limits of the flood-control system," said Jim Brozena, executive director of the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority. "We are trying to save this valley. . . . Every hour is a benefit now."

Paula Cecil, 44, cried at the sight of her redbrick home in nearby West Pittston. Agnes brought a foot and a half of water into Cecil's first floor, she recalled. This time, water lapped at her windows.

"We're devastated," she said.

Corbett put the statewide death toll at seven. Thousands remained in shelters or without power. The state Department of Transportation said more than 1,000 bridges remained closed in the eastern third of Pennsylvania, along with hundreds of highways.

The bridges will have to be inspected before they reopen, a PennDot spokesman said. Though many roads in Luzerne County reopened Friday, officials implored people to stay off them.

"This is a very significant event," said PennDot's Steve Chizmar. "I've been here 20 years and never seen flooding of this magnitude."

Some of the 75,000 Wilkes-Barre-area residents forced from their homes Thursday as part of a three-day evacuation order returned Friday to inspect damage. Others climbed levee walls and bridges to snap photos of the raging river.

In Forty Fort, northeast of Wilkes-Barre, a family turned the roof of its flooded home into a makeshift driving range, hitting golf balls into the murky floodwaters below.

National Guardsmen in humvees implored citizens to return to higher ground. Corbett, after touring the area, said, "People have to get themselves out of the way" to let engineers shore up a "levee system that's being tested to its all-time test."

Keith Englehardt didn't heed the advice. After evacuating Thursday from West Pittston, he woke to blue sky and dry streets Friday, and decided to see what was left of his house.

"I should just take a match to the whole thing, collect the insurance money, and drive out west to Vegas," he said.

No breeches in the levees were reported by late Friday, Brozena said. But engineers had to stanch a floodgate where water was beginning to rush underneath and bubble up on the riverbank.

The levees in Wilkes-Barre had been upgraded and raised from 36 feet - their height in 1972 - to 41 feet as part of a $250 million project between 2004 and 2006.

Officials said the Wyoming Valley would not be out of danger until the river recedes to 28 feet, which they cautiously predicted could happen Saturday morning.

Until then, though, the levees will remain under intense pressure and strain, said Col. Dave Anderson of the Army Corps of Engineers.

About a quarter of West Pittston, home to about 5,000 people, was submerged, said Mayor Tony Denisco. He said about 175 homes received catastrophic damage. Only the rooftops showed in the borough's low-lying areas.

A tank's cannon was all that poked out of the murky brown water at a flooded National Guard armory nearby.

Many families said they had no flood insurance.

"We rebuilt in '72, and we're wondering if we'll be able to do it again," said Bob White, escorting his mother, Carolyn, 69, who uses a wheelchair.

While touring the area, U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Casey pledged to work together to bring federal assistance.

Meanwhile, in Harrisburg, Mayor Linda Thompson said her city was still in a state of emergency, with the Susquehanna expected to crest at just over 25 feet by early Saturday. That was better than an earlier 29-foot forecast.

"We want people to know we are on top of this, and you are not alone," said Thompson, who hopped into a boat to inspect hard-hit areas just south of the Capitol.

Those areas have been evacuated and are under an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. Two shelters are operating.

With sewage plants flooded, thousands of central Pennsylvania residents were under boil-water advisories.

Contact staff writer Mike Newall at 215-854-2759,, or @MikeNewall on Twitter.

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