June 29, 2006

Wilkes-Barre waits as levee system put to test

By Jon Hurdle

WILKES-BARRE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Wilkes-Barre
residents waited anxiously on Thursday to learn if protective
levees would withstand rising floodwaters that threaten to
swamp the historic town.

Waters crested at more than 34 feet along the flood
protection system on Wednesday evening and were expected to
peak as high as 37 feet early on Thursday after the region of
some 200,000 people was pounded by days of torrential rain.

The levees -- restraining the Susquehanna River from
overwhelming the town nicknamed "The Diamond City" in the 1800s
for its coal riches -- were last reinforced in 2004.

James Brozena, county engineer for Luzerne County, told
Reuters that waters could remain at heights above 30 feet
(9.1metres) through early Friday but insisted the system could
withstand such intense pressure "for as long as it takes."

"We are very optimistic. We always have had complete
confidence in the Corps of Engineers," he said, referring to
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built the levees. "They
are some of the best designers of flood control systems in the

The Corps was roundly criticized after New Orleans' levees
broke in the aftermath of Katrina, flooding 80 percent of the
city and killing over 1,800 people on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Brozena said the Wilkes-Barre system was more modern and
less vulnerable than the New Orleans flood walls.

Still, the latest storm pushed water higher than at any
time since the levees were strengthened and raised in 1972 when
the Susquehanna overflowed, swelled by storms whipped up by
rain from Hurricane Agnes, and killed six people.

In Wilkes-Barre, up to 200,000 people were ordered to
evacuate and officials said as many as 150,000 had left the
area by sundown on Wednesday.

Earlier, the Coast Guard used helicopters to rescue up to
70 people stranded on rooftops, local authorities said.


Days of torrential rain followed by floods had killed at
least 16 people in the eastern United States by late on
Wednesday. With buildings submerged, roads washed out and
rivers surging, authorities declared emergencies and ordered
evacuations across swaths of New Jersey, New York, Maryland and

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.

Brian Hughes, county executive of Mercer County, New
Jersey, which includes the state capital, Trenton, where a
mandatory evacuation was ordered for part of the city, said,
"This is going to be the largest flood we've had maybe since

(Additional reporting by Sarah Coffey, David Morgan,
Matthew Verrinder, Ellen Wulfhorst and Claudia Parsons)