The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

News

June 24, 2007

The nightmare turns 35

Better weather forecasting, technology help Valley prepare for disasters

SUNBURY -- The low and gentle waters of the Susquehanna River today yield few clues of this waterway's violent past.

Thirty-five years ago this week, the remnants of Hurricane Agnes caused the worst recorded flooding ever in the Central Susquehanna Valley.

Milton, with no flood protection system, was the hardest-hit community, and P. Franklin Hartzel, then head of civil defense in the borough, was there through all of it.

Now 88, Hartzel, a witness to 17 Milton floods beginning in 1936, calls Agnes the "granddaddy of them all."

Flooding began in the borough's Fifth Ward, a result of Limestone Run.

"And at two o'clock I was called out again, in the morning, and that was the last time I saw my bed in four days," he said.

The remnants of Hurricane Agnes stalled over New York and Pennsylvania from June 21 through June 24, 1972, dumping between 10 and 16 inches of rain over the mountainous areas of Pennsylvania and western New York, with 6 to 10 inches common elsewhere.

The storm caused the evacuation of hundreds of Miltonians from their homes, and nearly $30 million in property damage.

All told, Agnes took 122 lives on the East Coast, 72 of them within the Susquehanna River basin. Four lives were lost in Northumberland County.

The storm caused more than $12 billion in damage, $59 billion in today's dollars, making it the costliest natural disaster until that time. Properties within the Susquehanna River basin saw $2.8 billion in damage -- $14 billion in today's dollars, according to the Susquehanna River Basin Commission.

According to Mr. Hartzel, poor weather forecasting gave homeowners little time to prepare.

"I kept in direct contact with the weather bureau and FEMA and they kept telling me, 'By a certain time you're going to have X number of feet in Milton,' and I said, 'You're crazy, I already got that much. What am I going to have tomorrow?'" Mr. Hartzel said. "They were so far behind on the weather forecasting. At that time, we didn't have the capability of keeping up with it like we do now."

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