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30 years later, Pa. still hasn't seen anything like Agnes

Saturday, June 29, 2002

By The Associated Press

HARRISBURG -- Ruth Van Brakle, her husband and son carried their furniture to the second story of their stonemasonry home, then walked a block to the bank of the Susquehanna River to see what the hubbub was all about.

That day 30 years ago this month, the river, normally a smooth streak of blue, was a brown tumult bearing wooden boards and tree branches nearly flush with the earthen banks that, only hours earlier, it had been well below.

"It was awesome," said Van Brakle, who is now 79. "You suddenly realized how limited mankind is, that God is in charge of things. We knew we were going to be flooded at that point -- it was just a matter of getting out."

The Van Brakles escaped, but many others did not.

Agnes, which formed in the Gulf of Mexico and quickly ravaged 12 Eastern states, became the costliest natural disaster in the United States at the time.

Damage was estimated at $3.1 billion, and 117 deaths were reported in states from Georgia to New York. Pennsylvania was hit the hardest, with $2.1 billion in damage and 48 deaths, making Agnes the worst natural disaster in the state's history.

Flooding and fires destroyed 68,000 homes and 3,000 businesses, leaving 220,000 Pennsylvanians homeless.

The damage in Pennsylvania was so severe -- flooding occurred from the Wyoming Valley in the northeast to Pittsburgh -- that President Richard M. Nixon declared the entire state a disaster area.

In Harrisburg, Gov. Milton Shapp and first lady Muriel Shapp were rescued by boat from the flooded governor's mansion.

State Sen. Clarence Bell, R-Delaware, then assistant director of the Pennsylvania National Guard, recalled inspecting damage nearby when a man rowed up and asked him to dispatch troops to stop the looting of evacuated homes.

"That's the job of the police," Bell told the man.

"I am the police," the man replied.

If there was a silver lining, it was that Agnes provided forecasters with a road map of what could go wrong.

Now there are computer-analyzed river and precipitation gauges linked by telephone lines and satellites. Radar is widely used to detect rain-forming clouds and help measure rainfall. Computer modeling is used to predict the movement of storms and effects of runoff.

David Zanzalari, a senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service in State College, estimates that, with those technological advances, evacuation warnings would come at least 12 hours in advance, instead of a few hours, if that, in the case of Agnes.

"It's like Buck Rogers vs. Dick Tracy, how different it is now," Zanzalari said.

The hurricane blew across the Florida Panhandle June 19, 1972, and up the Atlantic coast, bloated with tropical moisture. By the time the storm roared into Pennsylvania June 22, its winds had slowed to below 74 mph and it had been downgraded to a tropical storm.

But the storm stalled against winds from the north. With cooler air from other storm systems joining her, Agnes poured as much as 18 inches of rain in the next two days.

"It was really the combination of Agnes and an unusual wintertime regime in the northeast United States ... that gave it the new source of energy," said Richard Pasch, a hurricane specialist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

With Pennsylvania's many hills and valleys, "The recipe was there for a major flood disaster," Pasch said.

Emergency communication was frozen. Telephone lines were knocked out by the storm, leaving forecasters unable to tell how much rain was falling.

In Virginia and West Virginia, some of the larger tributaries south of the Potomac River saw flows two to six times greater than the previous records. The James River Basin in Virginia was also hard hit, recording flow levels twice as high as those during Hurricane Camille three years earlier.

The Susquehanna, regarded as one of the most flood-prone river basins in the country, crested at nearly 41 feet -- 34 feet above normal.

Flooding forced whole towns to evacuate, including residents of Watsontown, a Susquehanna River town in Union County. When people awoke June 22 to the sirens of fire engines, many roads were already flooded and blocked off by police.

Upstream in the hard-hit Wyoming Valley, rushing water tore out a section of the Forty Fort Cemetery in Wilkes-Barre and washed away about 2,000 caskets, leaving body parts on back porches, roofs and basement floors.

In Pittsburgh, where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers join to form the Ohio, the Fort Pitt Museum was inundated.

Its printing press nearly submerged and offices flooded, Harrisburg's morning newspaper, The Patriot, did not publish on June 23 -- the first time since it opened in 1854, said Dale Davenport, the editorial page editor of what is now The Patriot-News.

The paper combined with its Evening News counterpart when it next published on June 28, using its Camp Hill bureau and a press at an Allentown paper.

The headline read, "Anatomy of a Disaster."

When the flood waters receded after about four days, the Van Brakles returned to their Harrisburg home to find watermarks above their first-floor windowsills, an oily mud covering their hardwood floors, and water filling their basement to the top of the stairs.

"We didn't have any idea what the mess would be like," Van Brakle said. "But, oh, the mud. The problem we found very early is that if you don't get it out when it's still wet, you won't get it out. It's like cement."

Cars floated away. Garbage was everywhere. City workers carted away ruined furniture, even pianos, left on curbs. Electricity came on a few days later and walls and floors spent months drying out.

John Robinson, 55, remembers helping clean up the soaking books at his flooded church in Harrisburg.

At the time, he drew a line in white crayon, which remains today, on the church's red brick to denote the 5-foot-high watermark.

"It's really something that no one should have to go through," Robinson said, "but lots of people did."

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