Unprecedented wrath of Hurricane Agnes reverberates 50 years later
The president at the time described it as "the greatest natural disaster in the history of the United States." Half a century later, photos of the aftermath are as unsettling now as they were back then. So are the stories.
Agnes was the costliest storm ever at the time. Adjusted for inflation, it remains in the top 10.
On June 15, 1972, a tropical wave developed into Tropical Storm Agnes, which soon became Hurricane Agnes, the first and most destructive storm of the 1972 Atlantic hurricane season.
Now, 50 years later, Agnes is remembered for its record-setting flooding far away from where it made landfall, which showed that a hurricane's impacts can be felt well inland. The storm and its aftermath also held political implications for President Richard Nixon, whose handling of the fallout is said to have been the catalyst that set in motion the formation of one of the country's most well-known federal agencies.
The origins of Agnes
Agnes developed into a tropical system south of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula before tracking almost due northward into the Gulf of Mexico, a typical spot for tropical systems to originate in June. As the storm moved over the warm waters of the Gulf, it strengthened to Category 1 force, with conditions limiting any further strengthening.
The path taken by Agnes as it traveled from its origins in Mexico up into the mid-Atlantic and Northeast.
When Agnes made landfall on June 19, it was a Category 1 storm with maximum sustained wind speeds of 85 miles per hour, making it a relatively weak hurricane. However, winds are hardly the only hazard that tropical cyclones like Agnes bring to the table.
In Florida, the six fatalities that occurred were attributed to an outbreak of tornadoes associated with Agnes. Tornadoes that form as a result of tropical systems tend to be weak, but several of the 15 tornadoes that formed in Florida were strong F2 and F3 tornadoes. These twisters alone caused more than $5 million in damages.
Water-related impacts were also significant in Florida. Water is almost always responsible for the most death and destruction in a tropical system, with heavy rainfall causing inland flooding while storm surge causes damage along the coast. In the Florida Panhandle, rainfall of nearly 9 inches and a storm surge of up to 7 feet damaged coastal property and caused millions of dollars in damage.
In the case of Agnes, much of its most significant damage would be saved for parts of the mid-Atlantic, as after the storm passed through Florida and across the Southeast, it emerged and restrengthened off the Delmarva Peninsula before making an additional landfall over Long Island.
Agnes' extraordinary rainfall
As the storm and the moisture associated with it drifted over the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, the storm dumped a maximum of 19 inches of rain in western Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, with widespread totals of 10 or more inches of rain causing significant flooding throughout Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
24-hour rainfall from Hurricane Agnes between 8 a.m. Jun 21, 1972, and 8 a.m. June 22, 1972.
"Even though there were probably other tropical systems that moved inland and stalled prior to Agnes, it was a real eye-opener in that respect," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski. "It was also attention-getting that the storm backed westward, rather than the typical south to north, or west to east movement of most storms at that latitude for the general public."
AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist David Dombek explained how the storm got stuck and stalled over Pennsylvania and New York.
"In a normal situation, Agnes may have been able to just escape and go out to sea and it might have been a quick brush. But the upper-air pattern as it was over the eastern United States -- it captured Agnes and then it pulled it inland," Dombek said, adding that the storm was pulled in by a trough that was already in place.
Flooding from Agnes devastated much of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, which sits along the Susquehanna River. More than 5 inches of rain fell in the area.
In Virginia and Maryland, heavy rainfall flooded major cities like Richmond and Baltimore, with homes and highways alike flooded by consistently heavy rainfall. In Virginia, 13 people died in Agnes' floods, while in Maryland, 19 people were killed as the heaviest flooding focused on the Patapsco River valley, including the oft-flooded Ellicott City.
The most significant flooding, though, was found in the typically idyllic and peaceful Susquehanna River watershed. Levees constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers in Wyoming County, Pennsylvania, about 130 miles northwest of Philadelphia, were toppled, flooding the normally tranquil Pennsylvania river valley.
Torrential flooding from Agnes in Elmira, New York. (NWS)
Dombek was 14 years old and living near Dallas, Pennsylvania, when Agnes flooded much of the state. Dombek recalls that in the days leading up to Agnes, conditions were already very wet, which triggered flooding of the local creeks and streams.
"Even without Agnes, it was a wet pattern and we got a lot of rain and the streams were high," Dombek said. "Now we're injecting gobs, you know, just tremendous amounts of tropical moisture into this whole situation and enhancing the rainfall big time."
Dombek vividly recalled his father going down near the dike on the banks of the Susquehanna River in the city of Kingston, Pennsylvania, to help evacuate his uncle and sandbag the area in a last-ditch effort to prevent the valley from flooding, an effort that failed.
This June 23, 1972, file photo shows people being rescued by boat from their homes to dry ground after Hurricane Agnes forced the Susquehanna River to overflow its banks causing heavy flooding in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Paul Vathis, File)
Coincidentally, that is also the area where Sosnowski lived as a child. Sosnowski ended up losing his childhood home in the storm after 20-30 feet of water inundated the property.
"There was a sandbagging attempt beforehand where young and old gathered to help save the valley," Sosnowski recalled. "At the time, there was a huge generation gap -- think early 1970s -- and was amazing to see so many different age groups working together."
Jim Proeller, AccuWeather's Executive Producer of Media Content, also experienced the storm as a child growing up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Proeller was evacuated from his home, which was not far from the Susquehanna River, and returned only to find it destroyed.
The destruction from Agnes sparked fires in the Wilkes-Barre area in addition to the widespread floods.
"Homes that were side by side before, now were miles apart and in different directions as receding waters led the homes to land in different areas than where they were built," Proeller said. "Streets looked as if they were swimming pools, as neatly lined basements full of water were mostly what was seen among the mud and destruction."
When Proeller returned to his neighborhood, he found their house turned on its side in the middle of a field. His father, who died in the mid-1980s, had built the house and watching workers bulldoze it in the wake of the disaster was too much for him. "That's the only time I saw my father cry," Proeller added.
In the aftermath of the storm, Proeller's family lived in a mobile home for three years, with the storm shattering his community of friends and neighbors, many of whom moved away or lived with far away friends and relatives in the storm's aftermath.
Despite living around 10 miles from the biggest disaster zone, Dombek still remembers the eerie sounds of flood sirens as the disaster unfolded and the weeks of helicopters flying overhead, surveilling the damage and delivering supplies to families like Proeller's and Sosnowski's.
The Nixon administration responds to the disaster
At the time of the disaster, Richard Nixon was the President of the United States, and he and his team saw political opportunity in the tragedy. Initially though, according to Nazareth College Professor Timothy W. Kneeland, who wrote Playing Politics with Natural Disasters, a book about Agnes and the Nixon administration's subsequent response, Nixon was originally concerned with going to Camp David to make his picks for the MLB All-Star teams.
President Richard Nixon studies the flood damage in the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes, near Harrisburg, Penn. from his helicopter window, June 24, 1972. The president toured the Maryland-Pennsylvania area from his retreat at Camp David, Maryland. (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi)
However, Nixon's team, recalling criticism for the administration's response to Hurricane Camille in 1969, convinced him to visit Pennsylvania and speak with victims of the disaster.
When Nixon visited Harrisburg, the state capital, he spoke with locals affected by the disaster. One of the memorable moments of that visit was immortalized in a news photo with a young girl, 8-year-old Jessica Solomon. The image showed Solomon hanging on Nixon's left arm as he addressed reporters and it drew national attention. A year later, Solomon and her mother visited the then-reelected Nixon in the White House.
After touring the damage in Harrisburg, Nixon called the storm “the greatest natural disaster in the history of the United States," which at the time, it arguably was.
Jessica Solomon, 9, who received nationwide publicity from a news photo showing her clinging to President Nixon's arm when he visited Harrisburg, PA, to tour the destruction caused by Agnes, met with the president again on Aug. 2, 1973, at the White House.
More than a billion dollars in damage were reported in Pennsylvania alone, and 128 people were killed by the storm. Once the damage from around the country was tallied, the somewhat unassuming early-season storm became the most destructive storm on record to impact the United States, resulting in an estimated $3.1 billion in total damages, according to NOAA, or the equivalent of roughly $27.1 billion today.
In response, Nixon and his team worked with local and federal politicians to design one of the most generous aid packages ever designed, which Nixon used to boost his reelection campaign.
"He really wants to win and he knows one of the keys is going to be Pennsylvania. So he decides that he's going to be very generous, in fact, more generous than is his political mold, which is he sees himself as a conservative," Kneeland told AccuWeather in an interview.
The flooding from Agnes was widespread, devastating entire towns in Pennsylvania, New York and other mid-Atlantic states.
The vast aid package included benefits like loan forgiveness and funds to help states rebuild infrastructure. Kneeland said Nixon's response to the disaster certainly helped his performance up and down the devastated East Coast. However, soon after Nixon was handily elected in November, the expansive benefits were abruptly curtailed, something that did not surprise Kneeland, given Nixon's conservative leanings. Still, the Nixon Administration did not ignore the issue of disaster aid and created a scheme that incentivized local and state governments to prepare for future crises.
"Wisely, [Nixon] saw part of the problem was that local and state governments are completely unprepared," Kneeland said, adding that Nixon incentivized these governments to prepare for natural disasters by training emergency managers, creating a disaster plan, mitigating disasters and other key steps by threatening them with less generous aid packages in the future.
"This is really the origins of FEMA, which is to create local authorities and state authorities who are trained in emergency management," Kneeland explained. FEMA would be implemented under the Carter Administration several years later in 1979.
Hurricane Agnes is no longer the most devastating tropical system to directly strike the United States; that record has been broken many times since and is currently dually held by Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005 and Hurricane Harvey, which caused extraordinary flooding in and around Houston.
Still, the impact from Agnes lingers uniquely in the memories of many in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, especially those who live around the Susquehanna River Valley, for whom Agnes remains the most devastating storm they have ever seen.
For the latest weather news, check back on AccuWeather.com. Watch the AccuWeather Network on DIRECTV, Frontier, Spectrum, fuboTV, Philo, and Verizon Fios. AccuWeather Now is now available on your preferred streaming platform.Report a Typo