During the all too brief time I knew my mother-in-law, I learned what flooding could do. I realized it could take your home, but I didn’t understand the way it could overcome your spirit.
In 1972, my own mother was overseas on an extended vacation to see her brother, so my dad and grandfather watched us. My grandfather rode us around in areas I can’t name and we saw people’s possessions piled up on the sidewalk, including a beautiful piano which was decimated by the immense power of raging Hurricane Agnes. It pained by grandfather to see this beloved instrument cast to the side of the road by the forces of nature.
When I got to know my mother-in-law many years later, the imagery of that storm became a lot more clear. She discussed what it was like to return home to Oxford Street in the Lee Park section of Hanover Township that summer in June. She described the the water rising up the staircase as it threatened to make the second floor and the unforgettable odor of the flood mud. The pain of this event was evident in her storytelling of the long road back, where family memories were carried in salvaged photographs.
In 1996, the snow fell and the rain followed near the end of January. I was working for The Citizens’ Voice when I called her to utter the “e” word. Residents were told to leave their homes on a Friday night. Gathering the photos and little else, my mother and father-in- law sought refuge with us in Hanover’s higher ground. I could tell she couldn’t bear the thought of living through another Agnes. Thankfully, there wasn’t one and my in-laws returned to their home about a day later. Less than two weeks later, my mother in law died, succumbing to ovarian cancer at the age of 55. In the back of my mind, I blame that scare for shortening her life. The thought of another round of flood mud and a long road back clearly took their toll on her.
In 2006, the rain fell hard in June, flooding our basement. I looked through the window wells and all I saw was water. It eventually poured down the walls and settled wherever it wanted. The following morning, I left for my regular shift at WILK, beaten and exhausted from bailing a soggy basement. Hours later, the “e” word was uttered and the valley was emptied. The following day, the levees held and the threat subsided. Once again, the day was saved, thanks to savvy engineers from the U.S. Army Corps and the vision of Jim Brozena, a Luzerne County engineer to whom we owe much gratitude.
Wednesday, that vortex of unhappy memories planted itself in my brain as I watched the men and women of the Luzerne County EMA struggle to re-assure callers to their rumor hotline about a mass on a weather map that looked as dangerous as any red menace can. Plopped smack dab on the Susquehanna River was a storm with voluminous amounts of rain from Pennsylvania to upstate New York. Words like “catastrophic” and “record breaking” were pronounced. Darkness Wednesday into Thursday gave way to a deluge of water. At times, it seemed like someone was tossing buckets of water from the sky. Predictions grew dire, as the National Weather Service declared there was “no end in sight” for trouble. The “e” word was back and the window of time to get out of town was shortened by four hours as officials tried to move as many people away from the swelling Susquehanna as humanly possible. Hour after hour, the water level rose by ¾ of a foot. That didn’t stop the levee system near the Market Street Bridge from turning into a cross between “A Clockwork Orange” and a cable tv show, as odd looking onlookers came out to gawk at Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel. In news that seemed good, a river crest was predicted Thursday night into Friday.
That crest was announced with great relief at 38 feet and change, and it looked good for most, but not all. Communities like Pittston, West Pittston, Shickshinny and the Brookside section of Wilkes-Barre took it on the chin. U.S. Senators Casey and Toomey came to tour West Pittston, where a wheelchair bound woman insisted the flooding was worse than ever, prompting some to point to the new and lowered Eighth Street Bridge as a possible culprit.
After lunch on Friday, a wave of uncertainty washed through the E.M.A. building. Small discussions began about broken gauges, higher numbers and compromises in the levee system. Officials hastily called a news conference and said there was a crest, but it was much higher than previously reported. In fact, the new number stood at 42.66, higher than most were lead to believe the system could endure. “Worse than Agnes” summed it up right. The ashen faces told the story and their strong insistence that people not return home and get away from the levees was forceful. Further strong messaging came from Pennsylvania’s Gov. Tom Corbett, who bluntly told people to stop gawking and start listening.
The threat of the flood ended early Saturday afternoon, right before the Penn State game. Residents were told they could return to their homes. Some found them just the way they left them, others found nothing at all.
So now, that same old feeling is back for the families who know too well the odor of flood mud and understand their lives will always contain a chapter about that early September in 2011 when it kept on raining. Thinking of my mother-in-law, my heart goes out to them and I pray that the strong hands of Wyoming Valley uplift them in this time of immeasurable heartbreak.