While Hurricane Agnes caused large amounts of flooding, it also showed the need for a better flood warning system.
Prior to 1972, the county's part-time civil defense director disseminated warnings from the National Weather Service River Forecast Center in Harrisburg and any information received from upstream areas. There was no other system, said John Yingling, director of the county Department of Public Safety.
The federal government at the time stepped in and appointed an oversight committee to evaluate the system through which warnings were issued following the storm, he said. Locally SEDA-Council of Governments was charged with developing a system for its 10-county area in central Pennsylvania with funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission.
"The issuance of accurate and timely warnings is only the beginning," a SEDA-COG booklet produced in line with the study said. "There must also be a reliable system for delivery, a civil preparedness organization to cope with emergencies and public understanding and response commensurate with the threat."
County and municipal officials did not have reliable data for current and predicted flood heights in the county. There also was a lack of formal flood warning procedures, which resulted in considerable internal confusion, according to the booklet.
The one stream gauge that was immediately available to local officials was a remote reading gauge on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River in the city. It malfunctioned at the height of the flood by reporting falling stages while direct observations showed the river still was rising, according to SEDA-COG.
"In 1976, they started to modernize the system," Yingling said.
The Lycoming County Emergency Communication System was developed to establish effective emergency medical services communication links between ambulances and hospitals using a radio and phone patch through a 24-hour communication center.
The system was developed for a 10-county area in central Pennsylvania through SEDA-COG, with a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission.
"After '72, staff gauges were painted on," said John E. Lavelle, hazard reduction planner for Lycoming County Planning and Community Development.
Staff gauges were painted on bridges so volunteers could see the markings and know how high the riverwaters reached.
Those gauges sometimes had to be readjusted to maintain the system.
The National Weather Service provided metal tapes for staff gauges and rain gauges for volunteer observers, assisted in identifying locations for gauges, trained observers and established a forecasting procedure, according to SEDA-COG.
"Finding volunteers was hard," Lavelle said. "Flooding doesn't just happen during daytime hours. It's all hours in harsh conditions."
The effectiveness of the Lycoming County flood warning system was tested during a flood March 5 to 6, 1979.
A slow-moving storm caused flooding along Muncy, Lycoming, Little Pine and Pine creeks and the river. The flood damaged 324 homes. Some structures received up to several feet of water above first-floor levels and one structure was swept away.
Warnings of the impending flood were issued every half hour, each predicting levels to be reached in the next four to six hours. The predicted flood levels were within a foot of the actual levels reached.
Early warnings gave people enough time to move items, and damages were reduced by about $700,000, according to SEDA-COG. The staff gauges were used until 1996, Lavelle said, when 20 automated gauges were installed to automatically track river levels.
"It's a big tool when it comes to floods," Lavelle said of the automated system. "During a flood, the flood coordinators go to (the Emergency Operations Center) to monitor all those gauges."
The automated gauges also provide real-time information at the county website, www.lyco.org, where users may click Flood Ready to find information.
"You can get information if you're in Montoursville or Old Lycoming Township and see how the flood is forming upstream," Lavelle said.
That information then may be used to predict if people will need to be evacuated.
Normally, the website receives about 300 to 400 visits a day. During last year's flooding, the website received 83,869 hits and crashed. And, one of the automated gauges was ripped off Barbours Bridge and the staff gauges needed to be used.
"You always need a backup," Lavelle said.