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Hurricane Agnes Marks Anniversary

June 19, 2002

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) _ Ruth Van Brakle recalls the day 30 years ago when she walked to the Susquehanna River and fully realized that it was time to head for high ground.

The river, normally a smooth blue streak, was a brown tumult bearing wooden boards and tree branches. The scene provided a preview of what would happen in the following days as Hurricane Agnes rumbled through Pennsylvania and led to the worst natural disaster in state history.

``It was awesome,″ said Van Brakle, now 79. ``You suddenly realized how limited mankind is, that God is in charge of things. We knew we were going to be flooded at that point _ it was just a matter of getting out.″

Hurricane Agnes blew across the Florida Panhandle 30 years ago Wednesday and moved up the Atlantic Coast, ravaging 12 states in its wake and resulting in about $3.1 billion in damage. It was the country’s costliest disaster at the time.

At least 117 people were reported dead from Georgia to New York.

On June 22, the storm moved into Pennsylvania, where 48 deaths were reported and the damage was estimated at $2.1 billion. President Nixon declared Pennsylvania a disaster area.

Agnes poured as much as 18 inches of rain in two days. Flooding and fires destroyed 68,000 homes and 3,000 businesses, leaving 220,000 Pennsylvanians homeless.

Forecasters were unable to tell how much rain was falling because emergency communication was frozen and telephone lines were knocked out by the storm.

Today, computer modeling is used to predict the movement of storms and the effects of runoff, and radar is used to detect rain-forming clouds and help measure rainfall.

David Zanzalari, a senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service in State College, estimates that, with the technological advances, evacuation warnings would come at least 12 hours in advance, instead of a few hours, as in the case of Agnes.

With Pennsylvania’s many hills and valleys, ``the recipe was there for a major flood disaster,″ said Dr. Richard Pasch, a hurricane specialist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Flooding forced whole towns to evacuate, including residents of Watsontown, a Susquehanna river town in Northumberland County. When people woke up on June 22 to the sirens of fire engines, many roads were already flooded and blocked off by police.

Upriver in the hard-hit Wyoming Valley, rushing water tore out a section of a cemetery in Forty Fort, near Wilkes-Barre, and washed away about 2,000 caskets, leaving body parts on back porches, roofs, and basement floors.

In Harrisburg, Gov. Milton Shapp and first lady Muriel Shapp were rescued by boat from the flooded governor’s mansion.

Its printing press nearly submerged and offices flooded, Harrisburg’s morning newspaper, The Patriot, did not publish on June 23 for the first time since it opened in 1854, said Dale Davenport, the editorial page editor of what is now The Patriot-News.

The paper combined with its Evening News counterpart when it next published on June 28. The headline read, ``Anatomy of a Disaster.″

When the floodwaters finally receded after about four days, the Van Brakles returned to their Harrisburg home to find watermarks above their first-floor windowsills, an oily mud covering their hardwood floors, and water filling their basement to the top of the stairs.

``We didn’t have any idea what the mess would be like,″ Van Brakle said. ``But, oh the mud. The problem we found very early is that if you don’t get it out when it’s still wet, you won’t get it out. It’s like cement.″

Cars had floated away and garbage littered the streets. City workers carted away ruined furniture, including pianos, left on curbs.

John Robinson, 55, remembers helping clean up the soaking books at his flooded church in Harrisburg.

At the time, he drew a line in white crayon, on the church’s red brick to denote the five-foot-high watermark. The line is still there today.

``It’s really something that no one should have to go through, but lots of people did,″ Robinson said.


On the Net:

National Weather Service site: http://www.nws.noaa.gov

National Hurricane Center site: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov

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