PLAINS TWP. — Larry O’Malia should be worrying about how a hot and humid summer will affect his crops as the season begins to wind down.
Instead, he’s trying to save his crops from being completely destroyed.
That’s because the rain-swollen Susquehanna River is edging dangerously close to flood levels, which could put O’Malia’s fields and burgeoning produce in jeopardy.
“You don’t mind if the river comes onto the farm in November and December or even January or February,” said O’Malia, third-generation owner of Larry O’Malia’s Farm & Greenhouse.
But the river has invaded his fields now, which is major concern for O’Malia — and the region.
Predictions as of late Tuesday called for the river at Wilkes-Barre to crest at 29 feet around 2 p.m. Wednesday. Major flooding occurs at 30 feet, according to the National Weather Service.
O’Malia has been preparing for a deluge since a flooding scare in mid-July, which turned out to be much less damaging than feared.
“We prepared three weeks ago for flooding that never came,” he said. “It’s like a recurring nightmare.”
“Except this time we didn’t dodge a bullet,” O’Malia said of this week’s rising waters.
Levels in focus
At 22 feet, the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority pointed out Tuesday, the Susquehanna tops its natural banks and begins to inundate low-lying areas in Plainsville, Plymouth Flats, West Nanticoke and Shickshinny.
At 27 feet, the lowlands in the communities of Harding, Pittston and West Pittston are inundated.
The flood protection system provides protection to 41 feet for the riverside communities of the City of Wilkes-Barre, Hanover Township, Edwardsville Borough, Exeter Borough, Forty Fort Borough, Kingston Borough, Luzerne Borough, Plymouth Borough, Pringle Borough, Swoyersville Borough, Wyoming Borough and West Wyoming Borough.
All 13 of the authority’s pump stations have been activated to address localized flooding on the protected side of the levees and floodwalls, officials said Tuesday.
“Based on the forecast, it is not anticipated at this time that closure structures will need to be erected in the openings in the line of protection,” the authority’s statement added. But officials “will continue to monitor the local flooding situation and will respond with further flood fighting activities if conditions change.”
The City of Wilkes-Barre on Tuesday took the precaution of closing Nesbitt Park to vehicle and pedestrian traffic until further notice, officials said, due to the increasing river levels.
Dividing the fields
On Monday, the river level at Wilkes-Barre rose from 6.89 feet at 10 a.m. to 10.9 feet by 10 p.m. As of 10 p.m. Tuesday, it was at 24.06 feet, the NWS reported.
For O’Malia’s farm upriver, serious problems were already well underway, as the danger begins at 17 feet.
His land does not flood in typical fashion. The river floods into the middle of the farm, causing a lake-like separation and essentially forms two new farms.
In an effort to save crops from drowning by the flood, O’Malia and his workers picked pickles and peppers on Monday and Tuesday. But he still lost a few crops to the floodwater.
“I’ve lost a field of pickles and a field of corn that I planned on selling for Labor Day weekend,” O’Malia said. “When water gets on top of plant material, the plant will suffocate under water. They need to breathe.
“There is corn I can still pick, but I can’t get to it because there is a 5- or 6-foot lake preventing us from doing so.”
O’Malia said the flooding won’t directly affect his finances until September, but estimated his losses in the tens of thousands of dollars.
It’s cold comfort, but he knows he isn’t alone.
“I’ve spoke with other local farmers and they will be hurting financially too,” he said. “You have to realize my profit margin is always best when I grow the crops myself, instead of paying someone else for something I don’t have.
“But anything worthwhile is worth the work. Although it’s days like this sometimes where I wish I had just gone fishing.”
Farmers aren’t the only people feeling the pain as floodwaters rise.
Farther north, the Lackawanna River began overflowing its banks on Monday night. While the greater Scranton area was most heavily impacted, some homes in Duryea were evacuated as a precaution late Monday as minor-to-moderate flooding took place.
The problems in Luzerne County, though serious for some, have not been as intense as what has been seen in some areas of eastern Pennsylvania. Monday brought wider evacuations in parts of Schuylkill and Columbia counties as flooding affected a wide stretch of the state from Philadelphia to the Poconos.
Bloomsburg was hit by an evacuation Monday when Fishing Creek came roaring over its banks, and social media showed similar scenes in Benton and surrounding areas.
We may not be out of danger yet, either. While National Weather Service predictions call for a mostly sunny Wednesday, showers could return Thursday and Friday, NWS says.
It’s a danger O’Malia has certainly seen before — and it’s not a total surprise — but that doesn’t make it any less stressful.
He can remember another bullet all too well: O’Malia was 13 when the Agnes flood of 1972 devastated his family’s farm.
“Flooding is nothing new,” he said. “If the history books show us anything about O’Malia farms is that we’ve been exposed to flooding before.”
“We will do our best to salvage as many crops as we can,” he added. “However, I can’t refute the damage that has been done.”
Reach Dan Stokes at 570-991-6389 or on Twitter @ByDanStokes