First an earthquake, then a hurricane, then, seemingly out of nowhere, a flood unseen since the days of Agnes, overtakes the region with devastating effect. In its wake, at least four dead, thousands forced from their homes, and damages yet to be calculated.
By Jim Lewis, Debra Schell and Garry Lenton
Press And Journal Staff
Agnes has a brother. His name is Lee.
Smaller, but just as devastating. Weaker, but powerful enough to send streams to record frenzy. When Tropical Storm Agnes ravaged the Middletown area in 1972, she set benchmarks for flooding, for destruction, for misery. Tropical Storm Lee challenged them all.
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Lee dumped 13.30 inches of rain on Middletown over four days – from Sunday, Sept. 4 to Thursday, Sept. 8, about an inch and a half less than Agnes, according to the National Weather Service. Still, Lee sent the Swatara Creek to a record high of 26.8 feet at Hershey, shattering the old record, set in 2006, by more than 10 feet.
He sent the Susquehanna River to its fifth-highest crest, 25.17 feet, more than 8 feet over flood stage. He overwhelmed storm sewers and culverts, flooded busy local roads and back streets, and sent residents scurrying from his murky flood waters.
He filled basements and ruined living room sofas and carpeting and family photos. He damaged bridges, knocked out power, threatened water supplies and submerged trailers and ranch homes and convenience stores.
His damage in Dauphin County alone topped $52 million, according to preliminary estimates by county officials. Municipalities were still assessing damage.
President Barack Obama declared Dauphin, Lancaster, Cumberland, Lebanon, York and 14 other counties in central Pennsylvania a federal disaster area, a designation that allows residents and business owners to get federal money to pay for temporary housing, home repairs and loans to restore uninsured or underinsured property.
Lee made us relive the dread we faced 39 years ago, a dread we had hoped we would never feel again.
Brenda Heffelfinger frantically piled belongings – shoes, clothing, knickknacks – atop cabinets and on shelves, hoping they would stay dry, as the flood water crept around her trailer in Jednota Flats on Wednesday, Sept. 7. Her husband Mike had grown up in Steelton’s West End – destroyed by the raging Susquehanna during Agnes – and this flood looked just as bad.
“It’s time, Brenda, it’s time,’’ he kept saying, coaxing her to leave. When the water approached the front door, she packed a couple bags full of clothes, grabbed the cat and pulled the decorative box holding her mother’s ashes from the curio cabinet, and they fled to a raft brought to the door by Lower Swatara Twp. firefighters.
The trip to dry land – no, to safety, for everything seemed to be drenched by Lee’s deluge – was bittersweet. As they floated away, they were not filled with relief, happy they escaped the threatening water. “You think of how many things you left behind,’’ said Brenda.
Flash floods swamped local roads, including Route 230 to Middletown’s west in Lower Swatara and to its east in Londonderry Twp. Deep water covered Front Street in Steelton, Memorial Park in Highspire, Route 441 at Fiddlers Elbow, the Airport Connector at the Linden Centre, Jednota Flats, lower Royalton, parts of Middletown’s Harborton Place trailer park, the 7-Eleven on West Main Street in Hummelstown.
Flood waters damaged the Market Street and Jury Street bridges in Highspire, the Grubb Street bridge in Middletown and Fiddlers Elbow Road bridge in Lower Swatara. They flooded the Mill Street substation in Middletown, forcing the borough to go without electricity for hours on Thursday, Sept. 8 until crews could switch the borough’s power supply completely to its Spruce Street substation.
Local municipal officials throughout the region urged residents to evacuate low-lying areas, and suggested residents boil water before drinking it as a precaution. Middletown officials asked residents to conserve water after flood water submerged three of the borough’s wells.
Mayor Robert Reid declared a state of emergency in Middletown on Wednesday, Sept. 7, while Highspire Mayor John Hoerner declared a state of emergency there, limiting residents to travel in the borough for “essential’’ business or their health and safety. Dauphin County’s commissioners declared a county-wide emergency the same day.
Shelters were opened at I.W. Abel Union Hall in Steelton and the MCSO Building in Middletown, then closed in favor of a larger shelter at Harrisburg High School. Many residents were asked to voluntarily evacuate as relentless rain fell Wednesday and Thursday. The American Red Cross opened a smaller shelter Monday, Sept. 12 in Middletown’s First Church of God on West High Street.
In Hummelstown, flood water reached the roof of the 7-Eleven on West Main Street and upper floors of about 12 nearby houses, and flooded houses on Kokomo Avenue and in Graystone Farms, said borough manager Mike O’Keefe. Flood waters from the Swatara Creek surpassed a plaque on the United Water plant on North Duke Street that noted the high water mark of flood waters during Agnes, O’Keefe said.
In Highspire, neighborhoods that hadn’t seen flooding during heavy rains before were flooded, particularly in the west end from Ann Street to the Steelton, said Borough Manager John McHale. “It’s a pretty ugly scene,’’ said McHale, as the borough tried to assess damages.
In Middletown, Reid summoned the Pennsylvania National Guard, which guarded Harburton Place from looters on Monday. The borough had hired a company from Hagerstown, Md., to clean the acrid mud off borough streets, using water from Harrisburg International Airport so it wouldn’t tax the wells that were still operational, said Borough Manager Ron Mull. “We’re trying to get rid of and avoid a health issue,’’ said Mull.
Lee flooded the boiler room at Middletown Area High School, damaging the hot water heater and furnace. School was closed through Tuesday.
By Monday, the river and local streams had receded, and the Middletown area started to clean up.
Muddy furniture and garbage bags full of muck-covered possessions lined the curbs in Middletown, as residents began the painstaking process of cleaning their basements.
Flood victims could begin applying for federal assistance by registering online at http://www.disasterassistance.gov, by web enabled mobile device at m.fema.gov or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA.
Dauphin County officials were working to open a disaster recovery center where residents could apply in person.
Victims who need affordable housing can use a free web housing locator service, http://www.PAHousing Search.com, according to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.
Dauphin County’s Human Services Department was assembling a list of volunteers to help in flood-ravaged areas of Middletown, Steelton, Hummelstown, Hershey, Harrisburg and the northern section of the county. Residents willing to volunteer can call the department at 780-6288 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Teachers and staff at Reid Elementary School collected clothing, food, toys and personal hygiene products for victims on Monday. By the afternoon, the school’s gym was filled with donations, and Middletowners who gave items thought of just about everything.
From neckties to fluffy bedroom slippers, dishwashing liquid to cans of sliced beets, Gatorade to cases of bottled water, flood victims who live in the school district could replace what they lost. One large spot on the floor was covered in stuffed bears and other toys, a small playground where children whose family lost their homes to flood water frolicked for a rare moment.
“The outpouring of support as been absolutely phenomenal,’’ said Earl Bright, the school’s principal. “But Middletown being the kind of community it is, it doesn’t surprise me.’’
Danielle Johnson paused as she left the school with a case of water to recall the horror of Lee. She carried her nine-month old in one arm while offering a free bag of pretzels to her four-year-old. Her family, including her grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, and her mentally-challenged uncle fled their trailer at Lisa Lake in Lower Swatara to a hotel, leaving just about everything they own swallowed in dirty flood water.
Only the pictures hanging on the walls are salvageable, Johnson predicted.
“It’s just devastating,’’ she said softly. “It was very traumatic. Just devastating.’’
And though Lee had left Middletown days ago, he brought more drops of water.
Johnson struggled to stifle them.
“I haven’t melted down yet,’’ she said. “I can’t. I have six people counting on me.’’