As River Recedes from Lee, Pennsylvanians Return to Wilkes-Barre Homes

By and | September 11, 2011

Tens of thousands of evacuated Pennsylvania residents were allowed to return home starting Saturday as rivers swollen by the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee receded across Pennsylvania after flooding that was the worst in some areas since Hurricane Agnes nearly 40 years ago.

In northeastern Pennsylvania, officials lifted an evacuation order at 2:30 p.m. for as many as 60,000 of the 70,000 residents in and around Wilkes-Barre as the Susquehanna River’s level continued receding. The rest would likely be able to return later Saturday and into Sunday, said Luzerne County Emergency Management Agency Director Stephen Bekanich.

At least seven deaths have been blamed on the storm. Gov. Tom Corbett said Saturday state officials had received reports of five other deaths that were believed to be storm-related, but the circumstances of those deaths had not been confirmed.

“It appears now that the worst of the flooding is over,” Corbett said at a news conference in Harrisburg in which he said state officials have asked President Barack Obama to declare a “major disaster” in the flooded counties.

In the Wilkes-Barre area, Bekanich estimated damage was in the tens of millions — but could have been more than $3 billion if levees hadn’t held.

“The levees held,” Bekanich said. “The levees performed magnificently.”

The Army Corps of Engineers was inspecting the levees for cracks and officials hoped to make repairs rapidly, Luzerne County Commissioner Maryanne Petrilla said.

“It’s still hurricane season, and we don’t know what’s going to happen for the next six weeks,” she said.

In Harrisburg and other parts of central Pennsylvania, the river was also falling and officials were working to restore power to several thousand customers as crews worked to repair damage from the storm. Many roadways also remained closed across the region.

Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson said power was being restored to city residents and that the city was sending drinking from its reservoir to people who need it in other areas. By midmorning, PPL Corp. had restored power to more than 3,000 homes in the midtown area and about 2,300 residences remained without power, Thompson said.

The mayor said the city was providing 800,000 gallons of fresh water a day to American Water to be distributed to metropolitan and suburban areas where fresh water was in short supply. City reservoir water levels remain high and were not affected by the flood, she said.

A nighttime curfew remained in effect in flood-stricken parts of the city, and one person was arrested for looting in the uptown area, she said.

Ellie Martindale, a retired nurse who has lived in the quaint riverfront neighborhood of Shipoke in Harrisburg for 30 years, was one of the first residents to return Saturday since city officials ordered an evacuation Thursday.

Because her home is elevated, built over a first-floor garage, Martindale said the damage was minimal _ mainly mud washed in by about 4 feet of river water that also ruined the drywall in an entranceway leading out of the garage.

“The mud is on the floor and on any surface it could settle,” she said. “It’s lovely stuff. It clings.”

Martindale, who retired last year after working for nearly 40 years as a critical-care nurse at nearby Harrisburg Hospital, said she plans to remain in a downtown hotel until her house is cleaned up _ hopefully only a few days more.

Still, she said she has no regrets about living in Shipoke, whose townhouses offer a spectacular view of the river.

“It’s a great community — people helping people — and it’s a good place to live,” she said.

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