Officials in northeastern Pa. order up to 200,000 evacuated

Thursday, June 29, 2006

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. -- Packing the family car, Laura Lockman was taking no chances, not with up to 200,000 of her neighbors ordered to evacuate, not in a house where water once reached the second floor.

She, her husband, their three children and a puppy named Pebbles were leaving their Wilkes-Barre home, a half-mile from the Susquehanna River, swelling from some of the Northeast's worst flooding in decades. They weren't among those ordered to leave, but that didn't matter.

"I just want to get out of here. I just want to be safe, that's all," said Lockman, 42.

Wednesday's exodus from the northeastern Pennsylvania city was the biggest shock among many caused by the record deluge that has dropped several inches across the region -- more than a foot in Washington and Baltimore -- and killed at least 12 people from Virginia to New York.

The Susquehanna and its tributaries, running from upstate New York through Pennsylvania, accounted for some of the worst damage. In the Binghamton, N.Y., area, an entire house floated down the river, and whole villages north of Binghamton County were isolated by high water.

Downstream from Wilkes-Barre, the Susquehanna flooded parts of Bloomsburg, Pa., and threatened more catastrophic flooding in the college town.

Flooding forced thousands of people to leave their homes in communities across New York state, and in New Jersey and Maryland.

In Pennsylvania, Luzerne County Commissioner Todd Vonderheid said officials called the evacuation because they were worried about the effects of water pressing against the levees for 48 hours.

"It is honestly precautionary," Vonderheid said. "We have great faith the levees are going to hold."

An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people in the county of about 351,000 were told to get out by nightfall.

The evacuation order applied to most of Wilkes-Barre, a city of 43,000, and several outlying towns, all of them flooded by Agnes more than three decades ago.

Mayor Tom Leighton said about 10,000 people had left their homes by late Wednesday. Police and National Guard troops were patrolling streets in the evacuated area and were under orders to arrest anyone violating a 9 p.m. curfew.

The newsrooms of the Times Leader and The Citizens' Voice left their downtown Wilkes-Barre offices and planned to print their Thursday editions elsewhere.

Flooding also closed many roads in the Philadelphia area, including the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

A dozen helicopters from the Pennsylvania National Guard, the state police and the Coast Guard were sent on search-and-rescue missions, plucking stranded residents from rooftops in Bloomsburg, Sayre and New Milford. Hundreds of National Guardsmen prepared to distribute ice, water and meals ready to eat.

The soaking weather was produced by a low-pressure system that had been stalled just offshore since the weekend and pumped moist tropical air northward along the East Coast. A record 4.05 inches of rain fell Tuesday at Binghamton. During the weekend, the same system drenched the Washington and Baltimore region with more than a foot of rain.

Although the bulk of the rain moved out of the area Wednesday, streams were still rising from the runoff and forecasters said more showers and occasional thunderstorms were possible along the East Coast for the rest of the week.

Earlier this week, floodwaters in the nation's capital closed the National Archives, the IRS, the Justice Department and other major government buildings. The National Archives, several Smithsonian museums and some government office buildings were still closed Wednesday.

The National Archives moved in giant dehumidifiers to preserve its historic documents. "The threat to the records is not floodwater, but humidity from the lack of air conditioning," spokeswoman Susan Cooper said Wednesday.

An estimated 2,200 people in Rockville, Md., were ordered to evacuate the area around Lake Needwood, which was approaching 25 feet above normal. Engineers reported weakened spots on the lake's earthen dam.

Along the Delaware River, more than 1,000 people left low-lying areas of Trenton, N.J., and state employees in buildings along the river left work early.

Trenton's water filtration system was shut down because of debris floating down the Delaware, and Mayor Doug Palmer called for conservation, saying the city had only about two days of drinkable water. The river was expected to crest Friday at nearly 8 feet over flood stage, the fourth-highest level on record for Trenton.

The weather was blamed for four deaths each in Maryland and Pennsylvania, one in Virginia and three in New York, including the two truckers.

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