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100,000 in Pa., N.Y. Forced to Evacuate as Floodwaters Rise

September 8, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Emergency officials ordered 100,000 residents to move away from rising rivers in Pennsylvania and New York on Thursday, after downpours turned even peaceful waterways into potentially dangerous torrents. Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Mayor Thomas Leighton told Jeffrey Brown "we won't relax until people are back in their homes."

JEFFREY BROWN: The numbers from the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast outlined a growing flood disaster today, up to 10 inches of rain in a matter of hours, and 100,000 people forced to evacuate so far. All of this caused by remnants of Tropical Storm Lee, already blamed for nine deaths since it struck the Gulf Coast last weekend.

By this morning, downpours in northeastern Pennsylvania turned even peaceful waterways into torrents. Loyalsock Creek raged into Montoursville, 30 miles outside Wilkes-Barre, and fast-rising water threatened the region with the kind of flooding not seen since Hurricane Agnes almost four decades ago.

MAN: Well, I lived here all my life, 56 years now, and it’s the worst I have ever seen. I went through the ’72 flood, and this actually is probably going to end up beating that.

JEFFREY BROWN: In all, 70,000 people along the Susquehanna River and its tributaries in Pennsylvania were told to evacuate by late this afternoon. The orders stretched south to Harrisburg, the state capital, where crews sandbagged the governor’s mansion.

Gov. Tom Corbett spoke this afternoon.

GOV. TOM CORBETT, R-Pa.: Some of the flood gauges that we use out there cannot give us reliable data now because they’re so far underwater. We face a clear public health emergency, because sewage treatment plants, such as the one near Hershey, are underwater and no longer working.

As you know, floodwater is toxic. It is polluted. And if the sewage treatment plants aren’t working, they’re going to be polluted. If you don’t have to be in the water, stay out of the water.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Susquehanna was headed toward a crest this evening in Wilkes-Barre at 41 feet. Elsewhere in the state, flooding in Dover Township engulfed a mobile home community.

WOMAN: It’s a nightmare, and we pray to God that it soon stops and it recedes. I’m hoping a lot of people don’t lose a lot of their belongings, but it looks like there’s going to be some major water damage.

JEFFREY BROWN: And near Silver Spring, Pa., the Conodoguinet Creek was flowing out of its banks, leaving nervous homeowners to decide whether to go or stay.

JAMI ALLEN, flood victim: I have never had it, this much fear, going into this as I do right now of what the potential damage could be. And it’s scary. It really is.

JEFFREY BROWN: To the north, some 20,000 people had already been evacuated Wednesday around Binghamton, N.Y., and neighboring communities.

There, the Susquehanna broke records and kept rising, and some people resorted to airboats to get around. Across the city, it was hard to tell where roads used to be or to find this school’s football field. Only the scoreboard and goalposts still rose above the huge pool of water. Shopping centers, cars, homes were all submerged.

JASON DELANOY, Binghamton, N.Y., firefighter: Some of them have been so bad that we can’t control the water coming in. As fast as we’re pumping it out, it’s coming right back in. And other residents, they have only got an inch or two in the basement. So — but we’re still trying to get everybody out to a safe spot. Life is more important than people’s property, as far as I’m concerned.

CHARLIE PRITCHETT, Binghamton, N.Y., evacuee: It’s a little scary, but I do know that the emergency crews have been taking good care of everybody so far. And at least where we’re at, they’re ready to evacuate and they’re ready to take care of everybody.

JEFFREY BROWN: Flooding in New York also closed a 100-mile stretch of Interstate 90 along the Mohawk River. To the south, Paterson, N.J., pummeled by Hurricane Irene, faced new trouble as this new round of rain sent the Passaic River rising again.

CONNELL KELLY, Paterson, N.J.: It’s still raining now, so what are we going to do? You’re still concerned at how much more is going to come up.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in Baltimore and suburban Washington, D.C., water pooled when it had nowhere else to go. The rain is expected to subside over the next few days.

And late today two towns in Eastern Maryland, Havre De Grace and Port Deposit, ordered well over 1,000 people to move out of low-lying areas.

A short time, I spoke with Mayor Thomas Leighton of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where a mandatory evacuation order is already in effect.

Mayor Leighton, thanks for joining us.

So you are still expecting the crest this evening. What’s the situation right now?

THOMAS LEIGHTON, mayor of Wilkes-Barre, Pa.: Right now we’re waiting for the river to crest at 41 feet. I believe we’re at 38 feet. And if you can see the bridge behind me, you will see how close it is to coming over.

But we’re very confident in the dike system, that it will hold and that we will be back in our homes on Sunday.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that dike system, that is a levee system that I guess is relatively new. Has it been tested at these kinds of heights?

THOMAS LEIGHTON: Not at this kind of height, no. This will be a new record for this dike, the levee system. But, you know, again, we’re very confident that we’re going to be OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, how is the evacuation going so far?

THOMAS LEIGHTON: The evacuation of the city Wilkes-Barre went very smooth. We put our emergency operation in effect starting yesterday.

We knew we were going to have to evacuate people in the low-lying areas and we have done that. We have got great cooperation from all levels of government, from the federal government, to the state government, county, local school district with the evacuation centers, and the residents.

The business community cooperated when I asked them this morning to close their businesses to eliminate 15,000 people in our downtown, so we could avoid a traffic congestion. So things have run smoothly so far under some real adverse conditions.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what are you telling people about how long they might be away for, what to bring, what to prepare for?

THOMAS LEIGHTON: We told the people, you know, plan on being out of their home for 72 hours. This was not going to be a 12- or 24-hour evacuation.

We have to make sure once the river starts to recede that it’s going to stay within the banks. In the city of Wilkes-Barre, we have four creeks that run through the city. The one in south Wilkes-Barre is the one that we’re really concerned about. That’s the Solomon Creek. And this will be the third time in the last two weeks that we have had to evacuate the people from south Wilkes-Barre.

So we want to make sure that before we put the people back in the comfort of their home, that they are out of harm’s away.

JEFFREY BROWN: So are there places for the people to go? Are they going to shelters, do you know? And how are they handling it so far?

THOMAS LEIGHTON: They’re handling it very well. The shelters are full right now. The shelters in the city of Wilkes-Barre are full. We have opened one in Hanover Township at the Hanover High School. And we have one opened up in Plains Township right outside the city limits. And it’s been very, very — a very smooth operation so far.

JEFFREY BROWN: People make the comparison to 1972, Hurricane Agnes, the big flood you had. But that’s a long time ago. Is this something that the city and its people prepare for in some way?

THOMAS LEIGHTON: Well, we have prepared for it. This will be my seventh flood incident since I became the mayor in 2004.

We have experienced this in 2004, September 2004. We experienced it in 2006. So we have an operation, an emergency operation plan that we follow. And we have been following it so far. And, knock on wood, everything that we have asked has been done. The residents have been very cooperative. The Red Cross has been out, you know, all night.

Our police, our fire personnel, everybody’s really working hand-in-hand. It’s been a solid cooperation.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you mentioned the help you are getting from other parts of government. What kind of — what kind of emergency help is coming in?

THOMAS LEIGHTON: Well, we have PEMA and FEMA officials coming in tomorrow. I have a meeting with Sen. Toomey at 9:00 a.m. And at 11:00 a.m., I have Sen. Casey coming in. I have spoken with Gov. Corbett last night. I spoke with him first thing this morning, made him aware of the situation. We have also spoken to other officials in the governor’s office.

I spoke Sen. Yudichak and state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski. They are all concerned. They’re all here to help. And once the river goes down, and we have time to digest what we just went through, we’re still going to have millions of dollars worth of damage. We have creek walls that have pulled away from the ground.

We have some infrastructure problems that we’re aware of. And we will be sitting down. I think I heard a number. The city of Wilkes-Barre, we’re probably close to $3 million of estimated damage right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what is your sense of how long this goes on when you are talking about when the river starts to go down?

THOMAS LEIGHTON: Well, the river should start going down based on the predictions — and we are going to get an update within the next couple of hours — but it should start going down some time during the middle of the night. And that’s when we will start — we won’t be relaxed until we get the people back in the comforts of their home, but it should start receding this evening…

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mayor Thomas…

THOMAS LEIGHTON: … or early this morning.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mayor Thomas Leighton, thanks so much for joining us. And good luck.

THOMAS LEIGHTON: All right, thank you very much.