EYEWITNESS NEWS (WBRE/WYOU) — 10 years ago Tuesday, remnants of Hurricane Lee moved through Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania and into New York. The storm dumped more than 6 to 12 inches of rain in the area over a span of days, causing the swollen Susquehanna River to spill over its banks and into surrounding communities.
Record crests were observed by the National Weather Service along the Susquehanna River at Meshoppen and Wilkes-Barre, and exceeded the record crests caused by Hurricane Agnes in 1972.
The river was projected to crest at 38-feet by officials, but crested at a record flood stage of 42.66 feet. The river rose 1 to 2 feet by the hour as rain continuously pounded the region.
While some areas like Wilkes-Barre were protected by the levee, others like West Pittston weren’t so lucky. Before the storm pushed into the region, the National Guard filled sandbags while residents along Susquehanna Avenue boarded up their homes, preparing to be inundated with rain.
More than 100,000 people who lived along the river were evacuated, National Guard troops were stationed in Wilkes-Barre, while residents in several neighborhoods left their homes not knowing what they’d return to.
Flood gates were erected on the Market Street Bridge, but the mighty Susquehanna persisted, gushing through portions of the barrier. Former Eyewitness News reporter Kyla Campbell, who was at that Market Street Bridge during the storm, recalled an officer telling her “if you hear creaking from the levee, grab your camera and run”.
Unbelievable scenes were scattered throughout the area. J.J. Bankos in West Nanticoke flooded up to its roof and so did the K-Mart in Edwardsville. A home in Wyoming County was swept up by flood waters, carried down the river and into the Tunkhannock Bridge.
In Bradford County, those in the Sugar Run area had to boat to their mailboxes. One Bradford County resident who lived through Hurricane Agnes in ’72, told Eyewitness News in 2011, flooding from Lee was much worse.
The Bloomsburg Fairgrounds in Columbia County were submerged by flood waters. Water rose up to the grandstands and covered the stage on the grounds. The fair was canceled that year for the first time in the event’s 150 years.
An area that is no stranger to flooding, Elysburg, Northumberland County was also inundated with rain. The two creeks that run through Knoebels Amusement Resort rose quickly and flooded, the water and mud filling Crystal Pool.
Before the Susquehanna River crested, a breakdown of communication occurred. The USGS knew the gauge that measures the river level would stop working at 38 feet, but never relayed that information — puzzling officials, and the community, who believed the river level was higher but the gauge read differently.
“If anybody was told in advance this river was going to go to 42.66, the expression head for the hills is exactly what you would have seen,” Eyewitness News reporter Mark Hiller had said.
The river peaked at an unthinkable number, shattering records from 40 years prior. But it wasn’t a record to be celebrated and left many with questions and concerns.
The concerns lead FEMA to explore new flood maps for Luzerne County after the Susquehanna rose as high as it did during Lee.
“FEMA’s floodplain maps are a fundamental element of the flood insurance program, providing a basis for flood insurance rates and floodplain management regulations. Therefore, FEMA’s flood maps must be accurate and up-to-date, otherwise, communities will be misinformed about their true flood exposure,” FEMA says.
Many communities across the area spent months cleaning up the mess Lee left behind knowing eventually, it could happen again.