(WBRE 28/WYOU 22 EYEWITNESS NEWS) — Tropical Storm Agnes changed the lives and landscape of the Wyoming Valley 49 years ago, and made national headlines.
On this date in 1972 many were evacuated from their homes, returning to find a lifetime of memories destroyed by flood waters from the Susquehanna River. The Agnes Flood became one of the state’s worst natural disasters, damaging approximately 25,000 homes, 2,700 businesses and evacuating 72,000 residents.
“What they were coming home to, in some cases, were homes that were gone or homes that were filled with mud up to the first floor. There were fish inside, and thick mud. It took months to clean up.” said Dave DeCosmo, a former radio and TV reporter for WYOU.
Volunteers came by the thousands, shoveling sand and dirt into bags, covering about two miles of the levee in Wilkes-Barre. Just before 11:00 a.m. on June 22, 1972, flood waters grew higher than the levee. Sirens sounded 14 minutes later, calling all to move to higher ground.
The National Weather Service says Hurricane Agnes was one of the largest June hurricanes on record. The storm was downgraded to a tropical storm when it hit Pennsylvania, but still pounded the area with heavy rains for several days. The Susquehanna River crested to 40.9 feet and the river expanded one mile across.
The Wyoming Valley became one big body of water itself. Every boat and helicopter within a 100 mile radius were called to the valley and put into service to assist with rescues.
The widespread flooding from the storm caused Agnes to be called one of the most destructive hurricanes in United States history, claiming 117 lives and causing damage estimated at $3.1 billion across 12 states. Agnes was also one of the costliest storms in United States history.
Amongst the damage and devastation, many came together to bring back the “Valley with a Heart”. The need was great, but the response to that need was greater — shelters were set up in schools and churches and truck loads of food were dispensed to those affected.
“It’s the way people rallied was just amazing. The way people helped each other whether or not you lived there, you came down to sandbag and you helped,” Paulette Becker said, who lived in Kingston during the flood.
The flooding was the catalyst for major changes in the Wyoming Valley. Federal money was brought into the region and that helped change the face of the valley.