June 29, 2006

Floods recede in Pennsylvania town, New Jersey on alert

By Jon Hurdle

WILKES-BARRE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Floods in the
Susquehanna River receded early on Thursday, lifting the threat
of catastrophic flooding in the historic town of Wilkes-Barre,
but water was still rising in parts of New Jersey and

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
hundreds of thousands of people evacuated across swaths of New
Jersey, New York, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

"Yesterday was a war zone in the northern tier of
Pennsylvania -- we choppered out over 1,000 people from
rooftops, from second and third floors of their homes,"
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said in an interview on CNN.

The Pennsylvania town of Wilkes-Barre was prepared for the
worst overnight but levees held and the volume of water coming
into the Susquehanna from tributaries upstream was less than
had been anticipated, officials said.

"The danger has passed and life will return to normal,"
said James Brozena, county engineer for Luzerne County.

"It's hard to say we dodged a bullet, considering all the
damage and danger, but so far the news has been good today,"
Rendell said. He said officials were watching the Delaware
River in southeast Pennsylvania, which had yet to crest.

The focus also moved to Trenton, New Jersey, on Thursday,
where the National Weather Service forecasted flooding on the
Delaware would peak in the afternoon.

Binghampton, New York, remained partly flooded and the
nearby town of Conklin was the worst hit in the area, according
to Broome County spokeswoman Darcy Fauci. Hundreds of people
were airlifted from Conklin and Fauci said it would take days
for the water to recede.

"Today is going to be a big day for doing a lot of damage
assessment and getting into more areas," Fauci said.


Anxiety in Wilkes-Barre, nicknamed "The Diamond City" in
the 1800s for its coal riches, 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," said Alan Pugh, chief of public safety for
Pennsylvania's Luzerne County.

The National Weather Service had been predicting a second
crest of 35 to 37 feet in the early hours of the morning but it
did not materialize and the water level began falling.

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

There was a flash-flood warning for Montgomery County in
central Maryland, where engineers were assessing the state of
the Lake Needwood Dam, the National Weather Service said.

The weather service also warned there could be severe
thunder storms across New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania,
Delaware and Maryland later in the day.

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.

Brozena 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 levees, some parts of the county
flooded and sustained many millions of dollars worth of damage,
Pugh said.

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