On this date two years ago, residents along the rising Susquehanna River were collectively braced in a state of fear and anxiety.
In the morning they learned they were about to be dealt a river almost as high as it was in the devastating 1972 Agnes Flood, which caused $1.038 billion in damage.
By the afternoon, they were informed the river crest was arriving sooner and upped to 41 feet, exceeding the 40.91-foot Agnes.
While 65,000 residents protected by the Wyoming Valley Levee evacuated to shelters, hotels and the homes of friends and family on higher ground throughout the day, those in properties with no levees scrambled to elevate and grab what they could.
Some in West Pittston, Plains Township, Exeter and other areas lost all belongings because they already had several feet of water gushing into their structures by the morning.
With the memories of Agnes still fresh in many minds, residents and officials were on pins and needles waiting to see if the levee would stay strong and be high enough. Cracks and boils in the levee and leaks in Market Street flood gates increased tension throughout the day.
The levee was designed to hold 41 feet, but it held thanks to an additional three-foot top board added to handle waves and debris.
Officials didn’t learn until the next day that a faulty flood gauge threw off readings, and the river was actually cresting at a new record 42.66 feet.
The new record flood, caused by Tropical Storm Lee, ended up causing tens of millions in damage throughout the region and will drastically alter the footprint of communities that hug the river as federal officials push to permanently move more people out of high-risk flood zones.
West Pittston Mayor Tony Denisco, who was faced with 853 flooded structures in his town, said he’s been reflecting on the anniversary and marveling at continued efforts to bounce back.
While 20 homes are slated for buyout and some businesses were lost, many decided to repair and stay put, he said. Sewer and other infrastructure repairs should be under way in March.
“We have a lot to do yet, but it’s coming along just fine,” Denisco said. “The people in West Pittston are very strong. We’ll be getting by.”
If pending buyouts go as planned, roughly 200 residential properties from Nescopeck to West Pittston that were flooded in 2011 will be demolished and kept undeveloped by municipalities.
“This neighborhood will never be the same,” said Beverly Condo, a lifelong resident of the low-lying Plainsville section of Plains Township, which was among the hardest hit.
She and her husband, Ray, had 5 feet on the first floor and have remodeled, but they hope their upcoming buyout offer will be high enough to allow for a fresh start somewhere else.
“Our life savings went to fixing up what flood insurance didn’t cover. We’re just existing,” Ray said.
“My blood pressure medication has doubled from the stress,” she said.
About 36 properties are proposed for buyout in the township, most in Plainsville. Ray Condo estimates less than half of the neighborhood residents have returned to their homes.
Beverly Condo is torn potentially walking away from a home that’s been in her family since 1923. Her grandparents raised 14 children there, and her parents stayed loyal to the homestead even though the ‘72 flood hit the day after they had finished completely remodeling the place.
“I have mixed emotions, but I don’t think I can go through it again,” she said. “It’s not the same here anymore.”
Plymouth Township resident John Rinehimer has a similar sense of uncertainty awaiting a buyout offer that will determine if he stays in the municipality he’s always called home. Township officials are hoping some buyout residents relocate to property on higher ground in the township to protect the tax base, but Rinehimer said he’s not sure where he and his wife will live if they accept an offer.
Chief of the township’s Tilbury Fire and Rescue, Rinehimer was the first of several township property owners to elevate his East Poplar Street home on a new foundation. He didn’t move his belongings two years ago because the first floor was safe at a river level of 41.5 feet, which was below the initial river crest projections.
After responding to the flooding as an emergency worker, he returned home to find 16 inches on the first floor.
While Rinehimer and most of the township’s flooded businesses have remodeled and returned, there are several properties in his neighborhood that haven’t been touched.
“You can still see the mud lines on the windows,” he said.
Some township residents want to leave but won’t participate in buyouts because they owe more than their homes are worth, he said.
“Whether it will be feasible for us, I don’t know,” Rinehimer said.
Out of harm’s way
Hunlock Township Manager Vicki Benscoter supports the mindset that structures don’t belong in areas prone to flooding.
Seven properties along the river have been leveled since 1996. Another buyout is pending, and the township has requested four more using county-managed federal disaster recovery funding.
Township-owned property that once held homes is now a parking lot and public boat launch near the Susquehanna Warrior Trail along the river.
“Our aim is to have no houses down there to make sure everyone is away from that river,” Benscoter said. “It’s not a matter of if that area will flood again. It is a matter of when.”
Jenkins Township will lose as many as 54 properties in buyouts, most in the bowl-shaped neighborhood known as “The Patch” near the Eighth Street Bridge. Township officials have described The Patch as a “war zone” because many residents gave up and never came back after the water receded.
Supervisor Joseph Zelonis said he will celebrate demolition in The Patch because he’s certain it will flood again.
“I’ve been in office since 2004, and this was the third flood. I think about it all the time when it rains. Since I’ve been in office, I hate rain,” he said.
Suggestions for the post-buyout patch have included a community garden or a low-maintenance fitness trail. Zelonis said he’s open to any options that require little maintenance or worry.
“I’d rather cut grass there than see that destruction again,” he said.
Shickshinny Mayor Beverly Moore has undergone a complete attitude adjustment since the 2011 flood.
She sobbed when she saw the aftermath two years ago, including first-floor flooding of her own home, which had been elevated to keep the main living area one foot above Agnes levels. About 80 percent of the properties in the borough were flooded, many to the second floor.
But last week she was bubbling with enthusiasm talking about the borough’s first annual bass tournament on Sept. 14, which will include a motorboat and kayak fishing tournament.
“We are so excited. I won’t be able to sleep the night before the tournament,” she said.
Since the flood, the borough has added a concrete boat launch, paved access paths, a new playground, parking lot and solar lighting along the river. Land that will be cleared due to up to 42 buyouts may house an athletic field, community garden, horseshoe or bocce pits or remain space for events.
“A new take for us is going to be embracing the river along with fearing it. We’re starting to open up our town to tourism, and there are some great ideas out there to enhance the town and turn it into a destination,” Moore said.
Most flood-damaged businesses have reopened, and Moore envisions a new bike rental, kayak and bakery catering to the borough’s new visitors. She believes new foot traffic will offset the loss of residents in the flood zone.
A “poor-us” mood didn’t suit the character of the community, Moore said.
“We were flood victims for a long time, but we’re no longer victims. We’re survivors,” she said.
Borough resident Jim Bach, who owns a fitness center, supports the comeback efforts and has been working with other community leaders to promote the borough’s businesses and history.
However, he lost fitness center members when he was shut down for more than five months remodeling his flood-damaged business and doesn’t know if he can muster up the will to restart if the business floods again. He’s disgusted government officials have ignored his pleas to level trees on the expanding unclaimed river island adjacent to the borough that he believes worsens flooding.
“It’s been a struggle ever since the flood. We keep plugging away, but it’s like starting a new business. It takes three to five years to get it built up again,” he said.
COMING MONDAY: Status of Wyoming Valley Levee repairs