Sunday, June 20, 2010

Disaster we’d like to forget should be remembered with ‘Agnes’ tribute  

The Times Leader - June 20, 2010

The Times Leader
June 20, 2010

 NEARLY 38 years ago - on June 23, 1972 - torrential rains from Tropical Storm Agnes led to the flooding of the Wyoming Valley. Many of us are quite familiar with the events: The Susquehanna River spilled over its banks and into our neighborhoods, causing such damage that President Richard Nixon, who would later visit the wreckage, called it the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

Some people reading this might have been adults and homeowners at the time, and experienced great loss. Some were teenagers, old enough to realize what was happening, though not yet wise enough to understand its magnitude. Some, such as me, were young children, aware that something was wrong, yet unable to comprehend the devastation. And some readers, born after Agnes, have little knowledge of what actually happened that summer in their hometown and in other parts of Pennsylvania.

Some facts: Agnes, which previously had earned hurricane status, dumped an estimated 28 trillion, 100 billion gallons of rain on the upper Susquehanna watershed from June 21 to 23. In Pennsylvania, an estimated $2.8 billion in damage was incurred - translating to about $14 billion today. More than 68,000 homes and 3,000 businesses were destroyed, leaving more than 220,000 people homeless. In Luzerne County, more than 25,000 homes and businesses were either destroyed or damaged. Five bridges were washed away. About 80,000 Wyoming Valley residents were evacuated.

I was only 5 at the time. And I was one of those 80,000. I can remember June 23, 1972. Living in South Wilkes-Barre, I recall my mother telling me that we had to leave. If I recall, the sound of sirens filled the streets. It seemed surreal. But looking back, I know it was not. It was very real. My mother lost much of what she had that day. For my grandparents, who lived only about a mile away in Lee Park, the story was the same.

We spent that summer at my aunt and uncle's house on Strand Street in Hanover Township. It wasn't very far from our apartment - just a few minutes by car - and it was even closer to my grandparents' home. Yet it was just far enough up the hill that it was untouched by the water. For a child, the whole experience was actually kind of fun. My two older cousins became my big brothers for those few weeks, and what little boy wouldn't be excited by the sights of huge double-blade helicopters flying overhead and cool-looking army trucks roaming the streets? In the weeks after the flood, enormous bulldozers, dump trucks and street sprinklers seemed to storm down the roads at a constant pace, much to the delight of us wide-eyed kids.

But again, time - and maturity - have changed that perspective. Now, I wonder what it must have felt like to have been evacuated from your own home, leaving it behind and not knowing what you might find when you returned. Some people actually found their homes knocked right off their foundations. Some were completely gone.

There was nothing fun about any of it.

I remember the smell of wet plaster. And the smell of "flood mud." And friends living in trailers in their own backyards. I remember standing on my grandparents' front porch and watching my grandfather's favorite recliner being lifted by one of those huge bulldozers and dumped into the back of one of those giant dump trucks. What I can't remember, however, are many tears. Nor do I remember my mother or grandparents whining or complaining. Though people were shocked and saddened by what they saw, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

Immediately after the waters subsided, recovery began.

Across America in 1972, people were flocking to the box office to see the year's top film, "The Godfather." They were laughing along with the top show on television, "All In The Family" and a new show called "M*A*S*H." Songs such as "American Pie" by Don McLean and "A Horse with No Name" by America filled the airwaves. And here in Northeastern Pennsylvania, people worked to rebuild. And they worked harder than most of us probably ever have.

On Wednesday's anniversary of the flood, and always, we need to remember that.

I recently purchased some of the old books that document Agnes. I looked through hundreds of photos, and even though I actually lived through it as a child, it's still hard to believe it happened. When I showed the pictures to some of my younger co-workers, who weren't yet born at the time of the flood, they were awestruck. And one thing I've realized in thinking about all of this is that people my age, about 42, will be the last generation to remember Agnes. Though we were only children, we did experience it. And perhaps with that comes some responsibility.

Some people are disappointed that there is no real remembrance of the flood here in the Wyoming Valley, such as an Agnes museum. The old flood books are hard to find and video clips remain sequestered in the vaults of our local TV stations, shown only every few years on milestone anniversaries. Old radio broadcasts, some of which have been archived, typically can't be heard by the public. Newspapers from that time can be seen only on microfilm. Wonderful human interest stories exist, but they show up in different books, different news stories and different mini-documentaries that have been done in the past.

I'd like to see it all come together. I'd like to see one definitive, all-encompassing documentary film made on Agnes that combines those materials - and from which future generations can learn. Ideally, it would be completed by the 40th anniversary: June 2012. And then, once all the material is properly collected and the film is completed, perhaps an Agnes museum could be developed - a place where area school groups could go on field trips, where students could learn even more about what happened in their city and how their families fought through it.

Despite its strength and destructiveness, Agnes did not defeat Northeastern Pennsylvania. People lost valuables, homes and businesses, and a few even lost their lives. But the spirit of this community was not lost in the flood. It rose to the challenge. It got the job done.

On this anniversary, it is our job to ensure that the great flood of '72 - and the even greater effort to overcome it - is never forgotten.

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