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15th Anniversary of Storm Brings Flood of Memories

June 20, 1987

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (AP) _ Even as the sirens wailed and the water lapped at his ankles, Tom McLaughlin wasn’t too concerned about the rising waters of the Susquehanna River.

The river he knew was gentle and slow, incapable of destruction. Then he turned a corner and saw a wall of water wash away a neighbor’s house.

It was June 23, 1972, and Tropical Storm Agnes was doing its worst.

″I just couldn’t believe it was going to happen,″ said McLaughlin, a funeral director who joined the City Council after the flood and is finishing his second term as mayor.

Fifteen years later, there are no visible signs that it did happen.

South Wilkes-Barre, where McLaughlin lived and where entire blocks of houses had to be demolished, is once again alive with modest, well-kept homes.

Public Square, once surrounded by tired, aging buildings, is packed with new storefronts, a hotel and several office high-rises. At the height of the storm, the square had been under 14 feet of water.

The final downtown touch will officially be put in place Tuesday, when the ribbon is cut on the First Eastern Bank headquarters.

Gary Boam, a vice president of the area’s Committee for Economic Growth, remembers standing in the mud left by the retreating water and thinking, ″My God, how can we come back? Can we come back?″

Thanks largely to more than $1 billion in federal and state aid, the decaying coal town was reborn with new sewer and water pipes, streets and buildings.

″I think the flood, in general, ended up being a beneficial event for the valley as a totality, but was a disaster, and it remains one, for many individuals,″ said Andrew Shaw Jr., who was executive director of the Flood Recovery Task Force.

Agnes, the first storm of the 1972 season, was a hurricane when it bashed Florida’s panhandle and moved north along the eastern seaboard. By the time it brought rain to Pennsylvania, Agnes had weakened to a tropical storm.

The storm moved off, then reversed direction, stalling over New York and pouring rain into the headwaters of the Susquehanna.

″Agnes was no lady,″ said Milton Shapp, who was governor of Pennsylvania at the time. ″Ladies don’t hit and run.″

By the time the rain stopped, emergencies had been declared in all 67 counties. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency reported that 49 people died in the four-day flood, 68,000 homes and 3,000 businesses were damaged and the total clean-up bill was $3.3 billion.

More than $1 billion of the damage was here in the Wyoming Valley. In Kingston, across the river from Wilkes-Barre, only 20 buildings escaped.

The flood was a high point in the career of the region’s flamboyant U.S. representative, Daniel J. Flood, who resigned in 1980 after pleading guilty to conspiracy to violate federal campaign laws.

″This is going to be one Flood against the other,″ said the congressman, who flew in from Washington to take command of recovery operations, though he had no legal authority to do so.

Flood, wielding his influence as chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, pulled strings to get what emergency workers needed.

″Dan Flood called at all hours,″ Shapp recalled. ″He’d sit there and ram things through like he was president of the United States.

″I gave him everything he ever asked for. I wasn’t going to stay up the rest of the night telling him no.″

After the disaster, Flood guided a recovery bill through Congress and helped persuade the Small Business Administration to make a unique loan program available to residents who needed to repair or replace homes. For the only time in its history, the SBA offered the loans at 1 percent interest and forgave the first $5,000 borrowed by each person.

Even with the liberal terms, the loans caused a hardship to a number of residents who had owned their homes outright and were suddenly saddled with mortgages.

″The flood has been a major force in the rebirth of Wilkes-Barre,″ said Boam. ″Without it, I suspect, Wilkes-Barre wouldn’t have come nearly as far.″

The dikes along the Susquehanna were made high enough to protect the city from flooding caused in 1975 by tropical storm Eloise, but heavy rains still prompt some residents to call Shaw for reassurance that the river will remain contained.

″The flood never leaves,″ he said.