Thirty-seven years later, there are still memories of Agnes.
Additional Photos Below
Plymouth couple escape flood but not memories
Memories of mud, stink, devastation, loss and struggle.
Hurricane Agnes – downgraded to a tropical storm – stalled over New York and Pennsylvania from June 21 through June 24, 1972, combined with other storm systems, and dumped between 10 and 18 inches of rain over the area, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The storm and hard rains elevated the Susquehanna River to a height of nearly 41 feet – 4 feet above the levees at the time.
And on June 23 – after the valiant efforts of thousands sandbagging on the dikes – the water came over and through the protective levees, flooding homes and businesses with water that stretched miles across the Wyoming Valley. What happened was the worst flooding of the Susquehanna River Basin on record.
Tuesday will mark the 37th anniversary of the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Agnes.
In Pennsylvania, an estimated $2.8 billion in damage was incurred – translating to about $14 billion in today’s dollars. Considering the magnitude of the disaster, relatively few lives were lost. However, in Luzerne County, more than 25,000 homes and businesses were either damaged or destroyed, and the devastation was estimated to be $1 billion. In Pennsylvania, more than 68,000 homes and 3,000 businesses were destroyed, leaving more than 220,000 people homeless.
President Richard M. Nixon, who visited the Wyoming Valley and toured the devastation with U.S. Rep. Daniel Flood and presidential aide Frank Carlucci (an area native and graduate of Wyoming Seminary), declared Pennsylvania a disaster area.
In Forty Fort, an entire section of the historic cemetery was washed away and about 2,000 caskets were uprooted from their graves, leaving body parts on back porches, roofs and basement floors. Towns were left with massive cleanup projects. Some homes were lifted from their foundations and carried miles downstream.
Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, the Wyoming Valley attempted to repair the damage from Agnes and prevent another disaster by raising the existing levee system to protect from floods as high as 41 feet. Since 1972, there has been high water in 1975, 1996, 2004 and 2006, though none as high as 1972. (The likelihood of Agnes happening again is once every 400 years.) The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers praised the quality of the levees after they were raised in 2002.
U.S. Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski, who advocated for the levee-raising project in his first term in Congress in 1986, is pleased with the end result.
“It is enormously gratifying to witness the completion of the Wyoming Valley Levee Raising Project and the River Common after many years of hard work from a lot of people,” Kanjorski, D-Nanticoke, said. “Not only will the levee secure Agnes-level flood protection for the Wyoming Valley, but the beautiful new River Common is a first-class attraction for greater Wilkes-Barre. We have turned the river from a threat into an asset by using this project to enhance flood protection, develop the riverfront, and boost our local economy.”
A threat to an asset, the congressman said. And many people have embraced the river and the River Common project, but most say they will never forget what happened in June 1972 – the memories will haunt them forever.
Diane English lived on Tioga Avenue in Kingston when Agnes hit. She lived with her parents then and lives in the same house today with her husband, Gene.
“I remember it raining every day – it never stopped,” English said. “Our basement was filling up with water a couple days before the flood and my father was bailing it out. We thought everything would be OK.”
But everything wouldn’t be OK. At 5 a.m. on June 23, English and her parents were rousted from their sleep and told to evacuate their home. They stuffed what they could into plastic garbage bags – mostly clothing – and left. English, her parents – Cyril and Helen Bogdon – and her sister, Marianne, went to Plymouth to stay with family members out of the floodplain.
“It was very upsetting,” she said. “We tried to think of what we should take with us; we didn’t take enough. A lot of things were lost, like family pictures.”
On their way to Plymouth they had to take a detour because U.S. Route 11 was closed. English and her mother got lost and ended up in Jackson Township. They made it to Plymouth and waited until they could return to Tioga Avenue.
“We couldn’t believe what we saw,” she said. “We had 3 feet of water on our second floor. Everything was a mess – ruined.”
English said the house next door caved in and had to be replaced. She said her father was determined to repair their home.
“It took such an emotional toll on us, especially my parents,” English said. Her father suffered a heart attack while repairing the flood-damaged home. English lost her job because she couldn’t get to work.
“There was mud everywhere and the smell was terrible,” she said. “Our ceilings fell down – it looked like a different place, not home – not our neighborhood. The whole street looked so different with piles and piles of debris everywhere. And then everyone got a trailer; it really looked strange.”
But the family stayed and English and her husband live in the home today.
“It’s our home,” she said. “Many people left and never came back, but this is where I grew up and wanted to live.”
Diane and Gene weren’t married yet in 1972, but Gene has his memories of June 23. He was helping stack sandbags on the levee near the Forty Fort Cemetery.
“It was mass confusion,” he said. “I wasn’t there too long because the water started coming over the dike. I ran to my car and got out of there.”
English said when he went to look at the flooding, he couldn’t believe what he saw.
“Caskets were floating all around,” he said. “It was an eerie sight.”
Diane English still worries when the river starts to rise, despite the higher levees.
“It’s a fear that will never leave me,” she said. “It could happen again.”
English said her parents weren’t the same after the flood. She said they began to experience physical problems and their health seemed to gradually decline – her dad died in 1978 and her mom in 1981. Both were 66 when they died.
John O’Rourke, 71, was helping out on the levee in Kingston in June 1972. He said he could tell the levees weren’t going to hold. There weren’t enough sandbags to contain the river.
“I could see what was going to happen, so I left to check on my family on South Thomas Street,” O’Rourke said. “I took everyone to my son’s house in Laurel Run – out of the floodplain. Once I had them safe, I went back to help on the dike.”
The situation was getting worse, he said.
“When the water kept splashing on my boots, I knew we couldn’t stop it,” he said. “I remember being terrified; I could see what was about to happen.”
Once the valley was inundated, the water level at O’Rourke’s house reached 22 feet.
“It was over the roof,” he said. “I had nothing left. All our pictures and family movies were gone; all we had left were memories.”
O’Rourke said there were a lot of sightseers at the river. He said none of them ever anticipated what was going to happen. O’Rourke didn’t heed the pleas of the fire department officials who cruised neighborhoods and urged residents to leave their homes before the flood.
“We didn’t listen,” he said. “Not many did.”
When O’Rourke returned to his flood-damaged home, he remembers his refrigerator being turned upside down.
“When I opened the door, a dozen eggs were in there and none were broken,” he said. “So much damage everywhere, yet those eggs made it through.”
Jean Bonning Truchon operated Bonning’s Flower Shop on West Main Street in Plymouth and on June 23, 1972, she remembers her plants and flowers received way too much watering.
“I remember sitting on my neighbor’s porch not realizing the water was coming,” she said. “We didn’t want to leave; in fact, we were taken out in a row boat. I remember putting my cat in a pillowcase and I put all of our important papers in a box and got in the boat.”
When Truchon and her husband, John, returned to their business, they couldn’t believe their eyes.
“We were stunned,” she said. “We never realized how bad it was going to get. We got busy and started cleaning up.”
Truchon said there was never any hesitation on her part or her husband’s in deciding to keep the business and their home at the same location.
“We stayed there until 2003,” she said.
Truchon’s niece, June Bonning, remembered the help given to the Wyoming Valley by the Amish and Mennonite volunteers who traveled here to help.
“We had 19 1/2 feet of water in our place on Dagobert Street in Wilkes-Barre,” Bonning said. “It was halfway up the second floor wall. We had just remodeled the entire house. When we came back, everything was gone.”
Bonning said she saved a mirror from a bureau in her bedroom – a mirror she still has in her home.
“I should put a sign on it: Be steadfast,” she said. “All we wanted was to be the same as we were before; but that was impossible.”
Mary Fember was living in Luzerne. She was pregnant and terrified.
“My husband wouldn’t wake up when we were being told to evacuate,” she said. “He kept saying to let him sleep because he had work the next day.”
Meanwhile, water was rising in their basement and Fember was worried because, “I didn’t know how to swim.” She finally woke her husband and they went to his parents’ home in Luzerne.
Dolly Yunkunis, her husband and three children moved to Kingston in 1966. They bought a home on West Union Street. She asked her insurance agent about flood insurance.
“He told me there was no such thing,” Yunkunis said. “We wanted flood insurance because we went through a flood in Port Jervis, N.Y., in 1955 when the Delaware River overflowed.”
Yunkunis said the water from Agnes reached 6 feet on her first floor – enough to buckle floors and walls. Among the things she lost were an antique dining room set and a piano her son, a music major in college, played all the time.
“We never thought of selling the house,” she said. “But we have flood insurance now.”
Yunkunis thinks about 1972 often and worries there will be another flood.
“I worry about it all the time,” she said.
Yunkunis has spent many years volunteering at local hospitals and senior citizen centers. She volunteered at the River Common over the weekend selling T-shirts for a charity.
“The flood of 1972 was devastating at the time,” she said. “But we got through it.”
In Wilkes-Barre, Jim O’Day, his wife and eight children were living on Hickory Street. They were evacuated at 2 a.m. on the day of the flood.
“There was so much confusion,” O’Day said.
After the waters receded, O’Day said the place they were renting was repaired and they moved back in.
“Where were we going to go with eight kids?” he said. “A trailer would be way too small.”
O’Day said he can still see the piles of debris – piles of people’s lives and their memories and their heritage.
“There was so much stuff piled up and covered in mud,” he said. “Everybody lost things that could never be replaced.”
O’Day said he feels the area is more protected today.
“But no matter how high those dikes are, there’s always a chance the water could come over the top,” he said. “In a way, I’ve tried to forget the flood, but I can’t. It’s always there. And when I see floods in other parts of the world, I can feel a real sadness for the people, because I know what they are going through.”
On the Web
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