WILKES-BARRE — The photograph is iconic — the event was epochal.
A woman is at the center, running with hundreds of volunteers who valiantly did their very best to stop the Susquehanna River from coming over the top in 1972.
But Hurricane Agnes foiled the attempts to hold back the river — she eventually caused the pressure of a swollen Susquehanna to break through the levees — at Beade Street in Plymouth Borough, along Riverside Drive in South Wilkes-Barre and in Forty Fort behind the cemetery.
It was June 23, 1972 — 45 years ago.
The flooding would only worsen, eventually expanding the river to one mile across, creating horrific scenes of homes off their foundations and graves unearthed.
We don’t know who the woman in the photo is, but we all know what she was running from that day.
And 45 years later, Agnes remains on people’s minds.
From green to brown
Wilkes-Barre City Councilman Tony Brooks, a history expert, was 8 years old in 1972. But even at that pre-adolescent age, Brooks has a clear recollection of “the flood.”
“Even at that young age, the Flood of 1972 represented, for me, a mark between green and brown,” said Brooks, who grew up in the Newtown section of Hanover Township.
Brooks remembers driving from Hanover to Wilkes-Barre and seeing a distinct sight that registered that something was wrong.
“As you drove toward the city, the landscape went from green to brown,” Brooks said. “I immediately knew something was wrong.”
Brooks noticed the change in the color of the grass, the sidewalks and the streets — everything touched by the river was now brown.
“And then there was that smell,” Brooks said. “It was such an awful smell and to this day, regardless of your age, you can remember the smell of flood mud.”
Brooks said he often finds himself in the basements of old, historic buildings and in some, he says he can actually still smell Agnes.
“You just can’t get rid of it,” he said.
The before and after
Brooks, ever the historian, said the Flood of 1972 created a dateline marker — a benchmark of life in Wyoming Valley before Agnes and after.
“Agnes definitely affected community development,” Brooks said. “Some people flatly refused to return to the floodplain. It really slowed any investment in business.”
And Brooks said there were many historical, Victorian-style buildings lost in the flood — damaged too severely to be rehabilitated.
“Not to upset anyone, but those beautiful buildings were, for the most part, replaced with big, boxy, unattractive office buildings,” he said.
Also washed away in the floodwaters were those sentimental things that Brooks said can never be replaced.
“Things like photographs of weddings, graduations, birthdays, ancestors and more were just taken away,” he said. “Those personal family histories can never be replaced, along with so many other sentimental items. That caused a very heavy emotional loss.”
The flood in perspective
Dr. Anthony J. Mussari, former college professor and an authority on the 1972 flood, said the flood was unprecedented in destruction and dislocation. He said property damage caused by the flood exceeded $3.4 billion, or double the dollar loss for any other atmospheric-caused catastrophe in American history at the time.
Mussari said although 10 states were affected, most of the destruction occurred in Pennsylvania, and 70 percent of the commonwealth’s damage occurred in the Wyoming Valley.
“The magnitude of the disaster came as a surprise to everyone,” Mussari said. “The tradition of volunteerism had deep roots in the Wyoming Valley, and that tradition caused people to come to the levees to sandbag and to volunteer at disaster shelters. The community effort to raise and buttress the dike was a beautiful time in our local history.”
Mussari said the Agnes disaster is a story of community heroics, loss and sorrow.
“The slogan ‘Valley with a Heart’ remains better than ever, and it is a benchmark for encouragement and determination,” Mussari said.
Mussari, who wrote the definitive Agnes book, “Appointment With Disaster,” was among those sandbagging and trying to contain the Susquehanna 45 years ago.
“Without question, the Agnes Flood had a powerful and lasting impact on our county, our city and the lives of everyone who lived here,” Mussari said. “It not only proved that nature and man can never be fast friends, it also proved that people have an indomitable will to survive.”
Mussari said people 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. President Richard M. Nixon visited the area, as did Hollywood’s Bob Hope.
“We remember the sights of June 27, when we returned to the flood damaged neighborhoods,” Mussari recalled. “The floodwaters covered 225 miles of streets with thick mud, giving every home and every street an eerie sepia tone.”
Mussari also remembers the interminable wait for help, the long difficult struggle to make the case nationally and in Washington, and the “maddening inefficiencies” of a bureaucracy that was not prepared, in any way, for a disaster of the magnitude of Agnes.
“Of equal significance was the response of individuals who wanted to help themselves and others,” Mussari said. “In my mind’s eye, the Agnes disaster is a story of genuine heroism at the ground level.”
Mussari said we all should remember the dark, troubling days of Agnes to get the inspiration needed to keep moving forward with resolve.
“There must always be a valley with a heart, a valley with a soul and a valley that will preserve our past to guarantee our future,” he said.
Agnes grew suburbia
Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership in Wilkes-Barre, said it doesn’t take a lot to imagine the heartache that is felt at the loss of your home — a feeling felt thousands of times over across the Wyoming Valley in June 1972.
“It’s not surprising that the Agnes Flood of 1972 was a seminal event in the history of the Wyoming Valley,” Newman said. “That’s not just because of the scale of the disaster and the trauma it inflicted on the valley’s residents — it’s also because of Agnes’ powerful influence over our community’s subsequent physical and economic development. Now 45 years later, the legacy of the 1972 flood continues to shape how we see ourselves as a community.”
Newman said the massive levee system, which is one of the defining physical elements of the Wyoming Valley, is a stark reminder of the 1972 flood. Add to that the upgrading of the valley’s public infrastructure — streets, sewers, parks, schools, municipal facilities — that came in the first decade of reconstruction that followed 1972.
Regional office employment remains anchored in downtown Wilkes-Barre today because of all of the office buildings that rose around Public Square during the decade following Agnes. But the flood also saw the loss of almost all of downtown’s historic commercial buildings, which would otherwise have provided the raw material for downtown revitalization.
Newman said Agnes spurred the growth of suburbia in Mountain Top and the Back Mountain, as flood-affected residents sought new homes on higher ground. From Plymouth to Brookside to West Wyoming, neighborhoods were completely rebuilt.
Newman said some hold Agnes responsible for the death of Main Street retail, but he said that simply isn’t true.
“That was a national trend, and it was already well underway,” he said. “Scranton and Hazleton didn’t suffer floods, but their downtown shopping districts collapsed all the same. I would argue, in fact, that the post-flood reconstruction postponed downtown Wilkes-Barre’s retail decline for more than a decade. For example, it’s the reason why Al Boscov chose to purchase the Boston Store in the first place.”
Newman said there’s no question that suburbanization would have occurred regardless of Agnes — it’s just that the timeline and the details would have been different.
“Nonetheless, Agnes and the upheaval it caused continues to reverberate throughout the Wyoming Valley today,” Newman said. “Its impact is still present in our physical environment, in the choices that we make about where we live, where we go to school, where we work; and how we function together as a community.”
Brozena feared another Agnes in 2011
Jim Brozena, former Luzerne County engineer and former executive director of the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority, said what happened in 1972 was basically the same thing that happened in 2011.
“That is, it had been an extremely long time between major floods,” Brozena said. “In 2011, we found after the fact that references to Agnes really didn’t matter much because a lot of people living here really had no perspective on what Agnes was. And a lot of people working in flood protection and emergency services had no prior experience with floods in 2011.”
Brozena said in 2011, the amount of water in the Susquehanna River exceeded the river levels in 1972. But since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved and completed a $200 million levee-raising project, Wyoming Valley was not flooded in 2011.
“Work began on raising the levees right after the 1972 flood,” Brozena said. “Luckily, the project was done and the major population centers of the valley were spared.”
That project, Brozena said, prevented an estimated $2 billion in damages in 2011. He said some 12,000 residential properties and 2,000 commercial and tax-exempt buildings were spared.
Quick fact: In 1972, the river level reached 41.09 feet — in 2011, the river level reached 42.69 feet.
The levees were raised 5 feet on average, Brozena said, and despite the added protection, there was much concern whether they would hold in 2011.
“But they did,” Brozena said.
The levees have been tested by the Army Corps of Engineers since 2011 and they have been found to be in solid shape, Brozena said, with only minor repairs required.
As far as how well the valley is protected, Brozena said, “Never say never. The weather is always changing. But we do know that we have something that will protect us from the biggest storm we have ever had (2011). But there’s always a chance a worse storm could happen.”
Final flood thoughts
Jesse and Nina Izenberg lived on Meadowland Avenue in Kingston when the flood hit. Jesse said when he saw the damage, he knew he would never return to his beautiful ranch home.
“We lost everything,” Jesse said.
“It was an experience,” said Nina.
The Izenbergs said they would have had to gut the entire house and start over.
“I really couldn’t stand the thought of going back there,” Jesse said. “It was very emotional.”
Nina added, “And the smell was terrible.”
Brent Sikorski, 64, of Nanticoke, wasn’t affected by the flood, but he volunteered to help in the cleanup. He remembered going to the Osterhout Library and throwing out books that were saturated in flood mud and water.
“The most amazing sight was South Main Street,” Sikorski said. “Garbage was piled 10 feet and higher on both sides of the street. And the smell was awful.”
Brozena said what we saw happen in 2011 was the work of a lot of people over many years to get the levees raised. Now, the focus is on keeping the levees well-maintained to assure they work like they are supposed to.
Brozena said he found it amazing how much of a turnover there has been in valley residents.
“With almost 40 years between floods, we did learn a lot,” Brozena said. “We will definitely have a different message next time so people who weren’t here will understand what we are saying to them so we can protect them the best we can.”
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.
Flood losses added up
Dr. Anthony Mussari, former college professor and author/documentary filmmaker, wrote a book about the flood — “Appointment With Disaster” — and he has often lectured about the historic event.
Mussari provided some facts found during his research:
• Pennsylvania’s total cost of damage was $2.1 billion.
• The total cost of damage in Wyoming Valley was about 70 percent of that number.
• In Luzerne County, 5,000 acres were inundated.
• 100, 000 people were forced to evacuate.
• 28, 000 dwellings and 2,728 commercial establishments were affected.
• 37, 300 persons temporally unemployed.
• 25,159 families in need of disaster assistance
• In Wilkes-Barre, 1,222 acres were inundated.
• 20,446 people were forced to evacuate.
• 7,279 dwellings and most commercial buildings were flooded.
• 5,000 families were in need of disaster assistance.