June 28, 2006

At least 16 die in floods

By Jon Hurdle

WILKES-BARRE, PA (Reuters) - More than 150,000 people fled
rising river waters that threatened the old coal-mining town of
Wilkes-Barre on Wednesday after floods killed at least 16
people in the eastern United States.

With buildings submerged, roads washed out and rivers
surging after days of torrential rain, authorities declared
emergencies across swathes of New Jersey, New York, Maryland
and Pennsylvania.

Travel along the heavily trafficked Eastern Seaboard from
Virginia to New York was hard-hit, and rivers threatened to
inundate major cities when they crested overnight.

In Wilkes-Barre -- nicknamed "The Diamond City" in the
1800s for its coal riches -- up to 200,000 people were ordered
to evacuate as the Susquehanna River threatened to overwhelm a
flood control system only completed in 2002, officials said.

The Coast Guard used helicopters to rescue up to 70 people
stranded on rooftops and about 150,000 people left before
sundown, local authorities said. The Susquehanna was expected
to crest late in the evening and overnight. Police and National
Guard stood ready to enforce a 9 p.m. curfew.

"The worst part is yet to come," said Pennsylvania Gov. Ed
Rendell, speaking on Fox News on Wednesday afternoon.

A map posted by the National Weather Service showed flood
warnings spread over 40,000 square miles of the United States,
an area roughly the size of the state of Kentucky or the
country of Iceland.

Wilkes-Barre raised its levees after 1972 when the river
overflowed, swelled by storms whipped up by a hurricane rain,
and killed six people. Overnight the water was expected to test
the level of the levees' new height -- 41 feet.

"We have a very dangerous situation on our hands," said
Brian Hughes, county executive of Mercer County, New Jersey,
which includes the state capital of Trenton, where a mandatory
evacuation was ordered for part of the city.

"This is going to be the largest flood we've had maybe
since 1955," he said.


New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, recalling the Hurricane
Katrina that killed thousands in New Orleans last year, said
people should take evacuation orders seriously.

Trenton evacuee Louise Colbertson said police knocked on
her door about 9 a.m. and ordered her to leave. "The cops told
me I had one minute to wash the shampoo out of my hair and get
dressed," she said in a shelter.

"This has been a really horrible experience, I can't even
imagine how the people survived Katrina," she said.

More than 2,200 people were ordered to leave Montgomery
County, Maryland just north of Washington D.C., amid fears that
an earthen dam on a small lake could give way.

More than 5,000 residents of Broome County, New York had
evacuated and moved to shelters with many houses in the town of
Conklin under water, said county spokeswoman Colleen Wagner.

"The river has just enveloped many of these homes," she
said. "There hasn't been anything like this in a hundred

In Virginia, an 8-year-old girl died when she fell into a
flood-swollen stream and was sucked into a culvert, authorities
said, and Virginia State Police said eight motorists died
during heavy rains which persisted for days.

Three people in a car drowned in western Maryland, trying
to navigate a flood and two teenagers from Keymar, Maryland,
were missing and feared dead.

Three people died in flood-related car accidents in central
New York, State Police Lt. Robert Galletto said. Two truckers
were killed when their rigs fell into a sinkhole and a motorist
died after swerving into a ravine along a washed-out road.

In Wayne County, Pennsylvania, officials confirmed one
flood-related death.

(Additional reporting by Sarah Coffey, David Morgan,
Matthew Verrinder and Claudia Parsons; writing by Ellen