Daniel Shanken, Associated Press
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — Up to 70,000 people from the area inundated by Hurricane Agnes nearly four decades ago were ordered to evacuate Thursday as widespread flooding brought on by the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee lashed on already waterlogged Pennsylvania and was blamed for four deaths.
Up to 7 inches of heavy rain came a little more than a week after Hurricane Irene moved through the state. The soaking sent numerous small waterways over their banks, including one northern Pennsylvania creek that undermined a bridge abutment, causing a partial collapse.
Luzerne County officials called for a mandatory evacuation of all communities along the Susquehanna River that were flooded in the historic Agnes deluge of 1972 — an order affecting tens of thousands of residents.
Luzerne County Emergency Management Agency official Frank Lasiewicki told The Associated Press the river is projected to crest at nearly 41 feet — the height of the levee system protecting riverfront communities including Wilkes-Barre and Kingston — between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Thursday. The Susquehanna River reached 40.9 feet during the historic Agnes flood of 1972.
Residents were ordered to leave by 4 p.m.
Luzerne County officials were seeking volunteers to lay sandbags on both sides of the Susquehanna, which emergency management director Stephen Bekanich said was rising at a rate of three-quarters of a foot an hour.
Officials believed the levees would contain the river.
In places unprotected by the levee system, however, emergency officials expect catastrophic flooding of 800 to 900 structures. Flood stage in many of those half-dozen municipalities is 23 feet, meaning they could be inundated with 19 feet of water. Officials say they expect the river to crest above rooftops.
"We're confident the levees are going to work," Bekanich said Thursday morning.
But if the Susquehanna overtops the levee system, 10,000 structures throughout the Wyoming Valley could be flooded, said Bekanich.
"If we, God forbid, overtop the levee system, we're looking at catastrophic damage throughout the whole county that borders the river communities," he said. "This is a scary situation."
Bekanich, who himself lives in a riverfront community, has been working emergency management in Luzerne County for 23 years and said: "This is the worst I've ever seen."
Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton told residents to "prepare themselves for an extended evacuation" of 72 hours.
Leighton, who ordered about 20,000 residents to evacuate, advised them to take clothing, food and prescription medicine. He also asked city businesses to shut down by noon.
"There is no need to panic," he said. "This is a precautionary evacuation and the safety of our residents is our biggest concern. We have prepared for this type of emergency and we are ready to respond to whatever comes our way over the next 72 hours."
In Union County, several homes along the Susquehanna were already evacuated, including parts of downtown Lewisburg, about 70 miles southwest of Wilkes-Barre.
County emergency operations manager Stan Hudson said much of Lewisburg was shut down.
"We're going to be flooded in," Hudson said. "We're going to be stuck here for a while."
Members of the Pennsylvania National Guard have been assisting in evacuations and blocking off flooded roadways. Guardsmen have flown about 30 missions, mostly evacuations, across central and northeastern Pennsylvania, said Sgt. Matt Jones.
At least four deaths have been attributed at least partially to flooding in central Pennsylvania, where emergency workers had to rescue residents from their homes or swamped vehicles. A fifth person was reported missing.
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