June 29, 2006

Waters recede in Wilkes-Barre, levees hold

By Jon Hurdle

WILKES-BARRE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Water levels in the
flooded Susquehanna River unexpectedly receded early on
Thursday, removing the threat of catastrophic flooding in the
historic town of Wilkes-Barre.

A second crest of 35 to 37 feet, which had been predicted
by the National Weather Service and emergency officials, did
not materialize around 2 a.m. EDT

(0600 GMT) .

Instead, the river's water level fell to 32.63 feet (10
meters) at 2 a.m., continuing a steady decline that began after
the river first crested around 6 p.m. (2200 GMT) Wednesday.

Alan Pugh, chief of public safety for Pennsylvania's
Luzerne County, said, "We are not going to see the double
crest. That is great news. We are very happy."

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.


In Wilkes-Barre, the volume of water coming into the
Susquehanna from tributaries upstream was less than had been
anticipated, Pugh said. But the river's water level would only
fall about one foot (.3 meter) over the next 12 hours.

Waters crested at more than 34 feet along the flood
protection system on Wednesday after the region was pounded by
days of torrential rain.

Up to 200,000 people in the area were ordered to evacuate.
Pugh estimated that between 50,000 and 70,000 did so.

Officials will meet midday Thursday to assess the situation
and decide whether to allow evacuees back into their homes,
Pugh said.

Anxiety in Wilkes-Barre had centered on whether 28 miles of
levees would withstand the pressure of the flooded river.

"The levee system has performed very well. It has certainly
done its job," Pugh said.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' levees
broke, flooding 80 percent of the city and killing over 1,800
people on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

James Brozena, county engineer for Luzerne County, said the
Wilkes-Barre levee system was more modern and less vulnerable
than the New Orleans flood walls.

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

Despite the success of the levee system, some parts of the
county not protected by the levee system flooded and sustained
many millions of dollars worth of damage, Pugh said.

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.

Three people who were swimming in the swollen tributaries
drowned this week, Pugh said.

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