Bloomsburg, Pa. — The swollen Susquehanna River began returning to its banks Friday in Pennsylvania and New York after swamping thousands of homes and businesses in some of the highest floodwaters ever seen. But most of the 100,000 people forced from their homes could do little more than worry as they waited for the all-clear.
“I haven’t even been able to get close to it to see what’s left. I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said 68-year-old Carolyn White of West Pittston, Pa., who is disabled and uses a scooter to get around. Her son managed to get close enough to see that the first floor of her house was flooded, but that was about all she knew.
The Susquehanna and its tributaries raged out of control after the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee dumped heavy rain on the already-soggy Northeast on Thursday. In many places, the river broke the high-water records set nearly 40 years ago in the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Agnes.
Swirling brown waters carried off at least 10 houses in Pennsylvania alone, spilled into basements, lapped at doorsteps and filled some homes to the rooftops, forcing rescues by boat and helicopter and putting severe strain on the floodwalls that protect some towns. Downstream, communities in Maryland awaited the worst from the still-rising river.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett issued a stern warning to evacuated residents to stay away: “This is still a dangerous time, even though it’s nice and sunny out.”
At least 15 deaths have been blamed on Lee and its aftermath: seven in Pennsylvania, three in Virginia, one in Maryland, and four others killed when it came ashore on the Gulf Coast last week. President Barack Obama declared states of emergency in Pennsylvania and New York, opening the way for federal aid.
The central Pennsylvania town of Bloomsburg endured its worst flood in more than a century as the Susquehanna inundated hundreds of homes, destroying some of them. The high water prevented fire crews from reaching blazes in a high school maintenance shed and the town’s recycling center.
The river crested at nearly 42.7 feet Thursday night in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. — beyond the design capacity of the region’s levee system and higher than the record set during Agnes in 1972. Officials said the levees keeping back the Susquehanna were under “extreme stress” but holding, and crews scrambled to shore up weak points.
Corbett toured the region by helicopter and scolded residents who scaled the weakened levees or walked across partially flooded bridges to get a closer look at the river.
“There were many people out on the street oblivious to the danger they were in,” he said.
About 135 water and sewage plants in Pennsylvania were flooded, causing sewage to spill into streams and rivers. The state capital of Harrisburg evacuated 6,000 to 10,000 residents in low-lying areas, while about 70,000 people were ordered to leave the Wilkes-Barre area.