Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the day the Susquehanna River spilled over its banks and flooded the Wyoming Valley. Actually, rivers from upstate New York to Maryland flooded because of what was left of Hurricane Agnes.
Thankfully, I lived far away from the Susquehanna, far above the flood plain, but even as a little kid, I knew it was a big deal.
I remember sitting with my mom, listening to the kitchen radio on this evening, fifty years ago. I can still see that old radio. The newscasters were sounding the warning that the unthinkable was likely to happen-- the Susquehanna couldn't hold all the water. The evening before the actual flood, the relentless rain had slowed to a light drizzle, so I ventured out the door and down the block to walk around the neighborhood with my friend, Markie. I recall one of the town cops drove by on patrol and he stopped to chat. We talked about the storm, and what was about to happen. Spooky stuff, especially for a ten year old.
In a later interview, years after the flooding, WARM radio legend Jerry Heller says his most vivid memory leading up to the flood was that it just wouldn't stop raining.
TV news around here wasn't the greatest back then. Small staffs. Archaic technology. Judging from the old film I later saw, they did the best they could. There was some outstanding reporting. My respect could not be measured. It was huge. Radio was where it was at, and I was glued to it for the next couple of days. Then, the newspapers would appear on the front porch twice a day. The photos were terrifying.
The river receded. A few weeks passed, and I eventually did a little sightseeing in Wilkes-Barre and up the west side of the Wyoming Valley to Pittston. Yes, it was in bad taste, but the immediate emergency had passed and I was a curious lad. I can still see the dust and the dirt, massive hunks of pavement displaced, smashed houses, gasoline tanks that popped out of the ground, washed away streets, misery everywhere... The high water marks on buildings made me gasp. It was up to the second floors.
The Agnes impact continues to this day and beyond, especially for broadcasters. This area seems more weather conscious than most. Severe weather coverage goes front and center. We tell you when it's going to be bad. I feel that it's also our job to tell you everything is going to be okay.
I was looking at some old video lately, including an anniversary piece done years ago by Rich Noonan. He said it all came down to respect-- respect for the river, and respect for the people who rebuilt the valley.
The WARM produced "River on a Rampage" documentary is on Sound Cloud. Do yourself a favor and give it a listen. Fascinating, even chilling. I remember buying my copy at Sugerman's, and I still have it.
Take a moment to remember that awful time, and how far we've traveled.
By the way, the photo you see above was taken about a month ago-- looking up river and toward the North Cross Valley Expressway, which wasn't there in 1972. It's amazing at how a tranquil, beautiful river turned so angry, so fast.