Flood Victims Recall Agony of Agnes

By Samantha Kramer, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
June 23, 2012; 11:47 AM ET
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Dave's story

Though it's been 40 years since Hurricane Agnes pummeled his hometown of Wyoming Valley with 18 inches of rainfall, Dave Dombek remembers it like it was yesterday.

Dombek was 14 years old at the time. His home was on higher ground and spared from damage, but his family housed five of his relatives from Kingston, Pa., whose home was destroyed by the flood.

"I remember watching the Director of Civil Defense come on TV the night before [the hurricane] saying something like, 'No need to worry. We expect the river to crest the next day at 34 feet, and the dikes hold up to 37 feet,'" Dombek said. "But by 5 the next morning, it was at 32 feet and rising by a foot an hour."

Dombek, now an AccuWeather expert senior meteorologist, also remembers it as the flood that almost took his father.

His dad had gone down to help Dombek's aunt and uncle attempt to save their Kingston house; a "last-ditch effort" involving an assembly line with sandbags. But by this time, as it was for tens of thousands of other Kingston residents, it was already too late.

"It was a futile attempt because the sirens were going off, people saying we've got to get out of there because the river was starting to flood," Dombek recalled his father telling him.

Dombek said his father, aunt and uncle were forced to escape by boat, which capsized on their way back. If it weren't for a bundle of lumber that happened to be floating by, he said, they would have lost their lives.

Alex's story

Living right down the block from Dombek's uncle's home was Alex Sosnowski, who was only 11 years old when Agnes consumed his home in Kingston. His ranch house was destroyed when it was picked up by the 35 feet of water that rushed through his town.

His experience with the hurricane is what made him get involved with weather, he said; Sosnowski is currently an expert senior meteorologist at Accuweather.

"The worst part of being as young as I was, was having grade school friends and not being able to see them again," Sosnowski said. "That, in addition to losing your home -- it's a life-changing experience."

Even two-story houses were completely inundated when the Susquehanna River rose over 40 feet and swept through Kingston, Pa. (Photo courtesy of "The Great Flood of 1972")

Kingston is right across from Wilkes-Barre on the Susquehanna River, one of the areas hit hardest by the 1972 hurricane. By 1 p.m. on Saturday, June 24, the river had broken through the Forty Fort dikes and rose to a record high of 40.9 feet -- more than 18 feet above flood level, according to William Shank's "Great Floods of Pennsylvania."

Though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had deemed the levee system "flood-proof," more than 100,000 Wilkes-Barre and Kingston residents were forced to evacuate their homes.

Their lives and a few valuable possessions were the only things the Sosnowski family was able to keep.

"We had packed some stuff in the cars. Some clothes, some personal items, a safety deposit box," Sosnowski said. "Other than that, it's not like we had time."

Sosnowski's house was barely 10 years old when Agnes took it from his family.

According to the Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission, only 20 of the 6,600 houses in Kingston were still above water after Hurricane Agnes finally departed.

"I'd say the town still hasn't completely recovered," Sosnowski said. "There were a lot of homes that weren't rebuilt until years after that. And it wasn't like today -- there wasn't a lot of aid available. Only a handful of people had flood insurance."

Ronald's story

Ronald Pavlik, 79, of North Huntington, Pa., just outside of Pittsburgh, was one of the lucky ones. His house on Josephine Street was spared by the flood because it sits on a hill.

His company's building at the Pittsburgh Westinghouse electric and manufacturing plant, however, was not so lucky.

Pavlik remembers being at work watching the nearby Turtle Creek race to a dangerous height.

"I remember trying to get the equipment to the second floor, but we just couldn't do it fast enough," Pavlik said.

With over 45,000 miles of rivers and streams, the state of Pennsylvania is no stranger to floods. Towns near major rivers like Sunbury, Johnstown, Clearfield and Williamsport evaded major damages thanks to their strong levee and dam systems built after previous floods.

Although a 1936 flood had prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to do extensive work on the Pittsburgh's dam systems, they still couldn't keep up with Agnes. It kept the Ohio River from exceeding the previous flood's 46-foot crest, but waters still crept up to 35 feet.

Pavlik and 20,000 other employees from Westinghouse were sent home from work. As he made his way home, he took in the damage of other neighborhoods, where he saw "people in the streets with rowboats," an image that still hasn't escaped his mind today.

"The flood gates just couldn't keep up," he said.

Agnes Aftermath

When the water cleared, Dombek returned with his family to view the damage. He described what he saw as "horrific."

"Two of the things that really stand out was the massive amount of mud. It just covered everything for weeks and months," he said. "That and the oil. The stench of the mud and the oil -- it was just really vivid."

The river had also broken through the Forty Fort dike that was near a cemetery, causing caskets and bodies to wash up through the town. Entire houses were swept off their foundations, showing up a block down from the road.

"It was just a horrific scene," he said.

River water approaches the Forty Fort cemetery after the nearby dike collapsed. (Photo courtesy of "The Great Flood of 1972")

Hurricane Agnes has made its name as the 9th-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, mounting to about $16.5 billion after being adjusted for inflation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. President Richard M. Nixon deemed it as "The greatest natural disaster in the history of the United States."

Forty-eight people in Pennsylvania were killed, 68,000 homes were destroyed and 126 bridges were lost to Agnes. Schools had to push their start dates back into mid-September.

SEE ALSO:
40th Anniversary of Hurricane Agnes

Hurricane Agnes: A Photo Gallery

Residents were told to "be prepared for shock when you return to your homes." The hurricane that originated in the Florida Panhandle had raged through 12 states before hitting Pennsylvania the hardest.

Coming Back Better Than Ever

The Department of Housing and Urban Development provided more than 5,100 trailers for 'temporary' use for victims who lost their homes. However, these trailers were anything but temporary: Some ended up staying in the trailers for more than two years, reported a special edition of Wilkes-Barre's The Times Leader.

According to The Times Leader, more than $1 billion (not adjusted for inflation) was offered in state and federal aid in the Wyoming Valley area alone, which was used primarily for clean-up. Most residents had to deal with small low-interest loans, Sosnowski said.

The hurricane -- which was the country's most costly natural disaster that had occurred to date -- motivated Congress to strengthen provisions in the National Flood Insurance Act. The changes required federally-insured lending institutions to require flood insurance on new loans for homes, since very few people in major flood areas paid for insurance.

Rebuilding was tough, Dombek said, but he remembers the popular slogan appearing on billboards and broadcast on the local radios to motivate citizens to take back their cities.

"The Valley with the Heart Comin' Back Better than Ever!" it read.

When the waters receded, motivational signs like this one were seen around towns hit hard by the flood, showing that residents hadn't given up hope. (Photo courtesy of "A Portrait of Agnes")

Experts say that the reason for the extreme amounts of damage Agnes produced was in part due to less-sophisticated technology that was available to accurately warn residents about the storm.

One thing Sosnowski doesn't remember well are the warnings. Residents were told to evacuate just hours before the dams and levees broke, and by then it was too late.

"I think what happened was Agnes looped in from the Atlantic over Pennsylvania, and that kind of thing wasn't foreseen," he said. "Instead of it being a day, day and a half, like they thought, it turned into a four-day ordeal."

With technology that's now able to better predict when storms hit and how early to issue evacuations, Dombek says the chances of such devastation are "much, much less likely" to happen today than they did 40 years ago.

"They underestimated how much rain fell upstream, and they didn't have good enough reports of how much rain was going to actually fall," Dombek said. "It's not a mistake we're likely to make these days because of Doppler radar and a much denser network of rain gages and weather reporting stations."

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