Harrisburg, Pa. Tens of thousands of people forced from their homes in Pennsylvania were allowed to return Saturday as the Susquehanna River receded from some of the highest floodwaters ever seen, swollen by remnants of Tropical Storm Lee.
Other residents evacuated from river towns in New York and Maryland were waiting for permission to return as officials surveyed flooding damage.
In northeastern Pennsylvania, officials lifted an evacuation order Saturday afternoon for as many as 60,000 of 70,000 residents in and around Wilkes-Barre. The rest would likely be able to return later Saturday and into today, said Luzerne County Emergency Management Agency Director Stephen Bekanich.
The Susquehanna’s level had dropped to about 32 feet Saturday morning and was expected to be back within its banks at about 29 feet, Luzerne County Commissioner Maryanne Petrilla said.
Bekanich estimated damage was in the tens of millions — but could have been more than $3 billion if levees hadn’t held.
Much of the Northeast was still soggy from Hurricane Irene and its aftermath a week earlier by the time Lee’s rainy remnants arrived.
The Susquehanna crested Thursday at nearly 42.7 feet in Wilkes-Barre, higher than the record set during catastrophic Hurricane Agnes in 1972, and at 25.7 feet in Binghamton, N.Y. The river reached a 15-year high of 32.4 feet Friday at the Conowingo Dam in northeastern Maryland.
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. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said Saturday state officials had received reports of five additional deaths from the storm, but that the circumstances of those deaths had not been confirmed.
President Barack Obama declared states of emergency in Pennsylvania and New York, opening the way for federal aid.