Friday, June 22, 2012

Agnes at 40

By Anthony J. Mussari, Ph.D.

Someone once wrote: Today we study the day before yesterday, so that yesterday will not paralyze today and today will not paralyze tomorrow.

With this in mind, it is instructive and wise to look back at June 23, 1972, with an eye for today and tomorrow.

Without question, the Agnes Flood had a powerful and lasting impact on our county, our city, and the lives of everyone who lived here. It not only proved that nature and man can never be fast friends, it also proved that people have an indomitable will to survive.

Those of us who were alive during Agnes remember the heroic battle against the Susquehanna River that brought 10,000 people to the dikes to sandbag; the army of volunteers who served flood victims at 81 disaster evacuation centers; the sounds of helicopters overhead; the emergency sirens on the ground; the roar of diesel engines powering huge army trucks; the cry of babies and people hurrying to safety; the pitiful moans of the elderly and the sick; the scratchy sounds of the emergency broadcast network; silence of the telephones that would not work, the stillness of neighborhoods waiting to be destroyed.

We remember the sights of June 27, when we returned to the flood damaged neighborhoods. The flood waters covered 225 miles of streets with thick mud giving every home and every street an eerie sepia tone. Veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, compared the damage in these neighborhoods to the damage they observed in places like Dresden after the blitz, Inchon and My Lai.

We remember the interminable wait for help, the long difficult struggle to make our case nationally and in Washington, and the maddening inefficiencies of a bureaucracy that was not prepared, in any way, for a disaster of this magnitude.

As vivid as these memories are, they are but one important part of the story. Of equal significance was the response of individuals who wanted to help themselves and others. In my mind’s eye, the Agnes Disaster is a story of genuine heroism at the ground level. These are but a few examples.

Dorothy Tribus saved the life of infant Michael Reilly, who was born 10 weeks premature. The GAR Evacuation Center in Wilkes-Barre was managed effectively by Leo Solomon and staffed primarily by volunteers who were teachers and employees of the school district.  They cared for 700 people day and night.

Across the river in Dallas, Mercy Center treated 5,161 cases.  Fifty-two babies were delivered and 20 people were cared for and nurtured as they made their way to the other side.

Judge Max Rosenn created the Flood Recovery Task Force.

Min Matheson started the Flood Victims Action Council.

David DeCosmo put together an emergency broadcasting network. Marie Carpentier and Kitch Loftus destroyed the glass ceiling in radio and TV broadcasting for women, opening the way for others who would follow.

Again and again the flood victims themselves demonstrated the courage, resilience and grit that inspired others to keep moving forward.

Looking back on this time of destruction, danger and uncertainty, my most vivid memories are stories of heroics on the part of thousands who suffered much during the flood and after, stories of good humor and good will that helped people cope with the carnage.

On July 4, 1972, I wrote these words for a TV editorial:
When I think about all that has happened and the admirable way the people have responded, it all comes together. Americans seem to thrive on challenge, and the people of this valley are not going to be undone by the challenges of Hurricane Agnes.

Today, 40 years later, we are protected by a levee system that has been tested and not found wanting, but we have other challenges that are difficult and will, like Hurricane Agnes, test our determination and resolve.

Let us remember the dark, troubling days of Agnes to get the inspiration we need to keep moving forward with resolve that our valley will always be a valley with a heart, a valley with a soul and a  valley that will preserve our past to guarantee our future.

The heroic men and women who lost much and suffered much during and after the Agnes Flood believed in themselves. They refused to give up and give in.  They had hope for tomorrow. They demonstrated what America is at its very best.  They gave truth to the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes:

It’s faith in something, and enthusiasm for something that makes life worth living.

Copyright 2012 Mussari-Loftus Associates, LTD
The Face of America Project
All rights reserved

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