"Worse than Agnes" was an often-heard phrase among local residents in describing last year's flooding from Tropical Storm Lee. But deaths, damages and destruction all occurred from the record-breaking storm in 1972.
Hurricane Agnes arrived in central Pennsylvania on Wednesday, June 21, 40 years ago.
The rain caught many people unaware as they struggled to save themselves and their possessions when they realized how bad the flooding would be. Boaters were warned to secure their boats as the area received a flash flood warning.
Nearly all of the streams in the county were over the banks by 9 a.m. June 22, Peter J. Masco, executive director of Lycoming County Red Cross at the time, told the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.
By 9:55 a.m., city Mayor John R. Coder declared a state of emergency for Williamsport. He asked everyone to stay home except for emergencies. Evacuation centers were established for displaced people at the Salvation Army and Roosevelt Junior High School.
About 100 inmates from the Federal Prison Camp in Allenwood were taken to the city to assist with emergency flood control operations by filling sandbags and doing whatever else needed to be done to keep people safe.
At 12:30 p.m. that day, the Susquehanna River was more than 14 feet and rising. It would crest at an unprecedented 34.75 feet at 10:30 p.m. the next day.
City residents, by and large, were spared the more disastrous consequences of Agnes, thanks to the dike built in the aftermath of the 1936 flood. That embankment of earth and rock, 14 miles long, raised the flood stage in the city to 36 feet.
In other places along the river, it was about 20 feet, according to the Lycoming County Historical Society.
Even with the dike in place, some flooding occurred in Williamsport. Dewey Avenue, Race Street, Memorial Avenue, Market Street, eastern Jefferson Street and Chatham Street were closed. In many places, streets were filled with water from curb to curb, but travel was maintained at a slower pace.
While the dike protected Williamsport, residents in other parts of the county were not as fortunate. In Montgomery, the water crested at 37.50 feet, spilling over onto the roads and over the railroad tracks, Dennis M. Gruver, Montgomery Emergency Management Agency coordinator, said.
Flooding wasn't the only problem that came from the rains. Traffic was slowed or blocked on the Montgomery Pike by six separate rockslides.
Water Street Bridge at Hughesville, leading to Lairdsville, was closed. Route 220 leading into Picture Rocks also was closed.
Hospital stays open
Even though traveling was difficult, hospitals needed to stay open. The Sun-Gazette reported on June 22 that 94 percent of the more than 400 personnel on first shift at the Williamsport Hospital were unable to get to work. Still, the hospital kept running.
In July 1972, Clive R. Waxman Jr., president of the Williamsport Hospital, talked about the flood in his president's message included in the staff newsletter that month. He spoke about how they chose to run the hospital so that staff members were rested.
"The decision was to delay opening the hospital as an evacuation center until we were sure it was necessary and until we were sure of our proper role," Waxman wrote. "As a result, when we opened our evacuation center early Thursday evening we were able to take people from other centers who had medical problems, families with infant children and elderly people requiring special attention."
Through the help of the National Guard stationed at the Penn Street Armory, trucks and helicopters supplied food and water to isolated areas outside of the city.
Also according to the newsletter, 168 evacuees were taken to the hospital. Mattresses and beds were provided for those spending the night. Meals were provided starting with dinner Thursday evening and continuing through noon on Saturday when the evacuees returned home or to family. Stranded hospital personnel were housed in the nurses' residence or homes of fellow employees.
Looters and law
By June 23, when the flooding was at its worst, police officers had to work 12-hour shifts and firefighters were on duty around the clock. Unless a fire was major, only one pumper would respond to it. In most situations, nine pumpers responded to fires.
The next day, the rivers began to recede, allowing residents the first opportunity to see and begin to assess the flood's damage.
On June 26, the Sun-Gazette's front-page article began: "The flood threat is over and clean-up and looting have begun."
Three looters had been arrested by police for burglarizing homes in Newberry.
The Susquehanna River, while still high, had fallen to 16.86 feet by noon and continued to fall.
Many downtown stores and businesses reopened that Monday following the flood. Some owners had to put stock back on the main floor and in the cellar because items had been removed as a precaution if the dike failed.
Records show three men died because of the flooding.
The body of Harold DeMott, 50, of Muncy, was discovered June 23, drowned in his car. His car was not discovered until the water started to recede.
The body of David T. Peluso, 22, of Williamsport, was discovered June 29, outside his car near the Milton interchange of the Keystone Shortway, now known as Interstate 80. He had been missing since June 22 after leaving work from an industrial site near New Columbia in Union County, said John Yingling, director of the county Department of Public Safety.
Albert "Baldy" Shick died while on duty as a fire policeman with the Montgomery Volunteer Fire Department. He was directing traffic at the intersection of Montgomery Street and Thomas Avenue as the water was on the rise, said Dennis M. Gruver, Montgomery Emergency Management Agency coordinator.
A total of 48 deaths in the state and 117 nationwide resulted from Hurricane Agnes.
The hurricane contributed to the rainiest June on record, at the time, with 16.8 inches of precipitation. The old record was 10.32 inches in 1916. It also was the greatest single ever rain record with 13.52 inches from June 20 to 26.
Water flow increased from 5,570 to 279,000 cubic feet per second during the flood. Three days after the flood's peak, water levels remained nearly eight times higher than normal at 16.33 feet, a Harrisburg newspaper reported.
About 13,000 buildings were impacted by the flooding, with 2,800 extensively damaged or destroyed. A total loss of $54 million was estimated, Yingling said.
When Hurricane Agnes hit Lycoming County, Kenneth Larson was far away in Myrtle Beach on vacation.
Larson was, at the time, the district engineer in the state Department of Transportation District 3.0, which covers Lycoming, Sullivan, Tioga, Bradford, Union, Snyder, Northumberland, Montour and Columbia counties.
"I tried to call the office," he said. "I couldn't get through. I called the Pittsburgh district office and they matched me through to Montoursville (district headquarters). They briefed me on the damage that had taken place. Me and my family loaded up the trailer and the station wagon and headed home."
Traveling into the county the day after the flooding was difficult. Damaged roads blocked their paths and they had to travel along Interstates 81 and 80 and into Route 15 to get to Montoursville.
It would be a sign of the huge job ahead - reconstruction.
The state Department of Transportation began by purchasing cameras to take pictures of the damage.
"It was a tremendous undertaking," he said. "We had a very good staff at the time. They handled it very well."
About 200 bridges were damaged throughout the district. Unlike last year's flooding, that which resulted from Hurricane Agnes was more widespread.
"The northern part of the district was hit the worst," Larson said. "Lycoming, Tioga, Sullivan and Columbia (counties). Columbia lost a lot of bridges."
The first step in repairing the damages was assigning projects. PennDOT had to decide which projects the maintenance unit could handle and which needed emergency contracts.
Bigger projects, such as the damaged Loyalsockville Bridge, had to wait until a new bridge could be designed and contracted.
Until permanent bridges could be built, Bailey bridges were constructed. The bridges, which were designed by the Army in World War II, allowed for the quick crossing of rivers.
"We put up quite a few of those," Larson said. "One in Columbia County, we got it up and a week later, a truck was too heavy and took it down again."
In addition to the Bailey bridges, alternative routes had to be developed to let people travel safely around closed roads.
For every project that had to be completed, a map was made for every county. Since computers were not yet around, everything had to be done by hand. A district flood coordinator had to keep track of the progress of each project.
"In a way, it was a blessing," Larson said.
Many bridges that were damaged already were structurally deficient and would have needed replacement. Destroyed bridges from flooding allowed for new bridges to be constructed.