June 29, 2006

Floods Cripple River Towns in Northeast

By Steve James

TRENTON, New Jersey (Reuters) - Up to 200,000 evacuees from water-logged Wilkes-Barre were told they could go home on Thursday after levees held back the Susquehanna River, but swollen rivers still wreaked havoc in the U.S. northeast.

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine told reporters water levels along the Delaware River could crest in the afternoon near 25 feet, a level that would rival floods of last year, and could lead to serious problems in the state capital, Trenton.

He said damage in the state could be comparable to floods last year that caused losses valued at $30 million.

New York Gov. George Pataki said after visiting the flooded city of Binghamton the destruction was unprecedented and the cost could run into hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a spokesman, Saleem Cheeks.

Days of torrential rain followed by floods had killed at least 16 people in the eastern United States by Thursday, including those killed in storm-related road accidents.

With buildings submerged, roads washed out and rivers surging, authorities declared emergencies on Wednesday and ordered hundreds of thousands of people evacuated in 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 historic Pennsylvania coal town of Wilkes-Barre prepared for the worst overnight but river levees held and officials said on Thursday residents could go home.

Authorities said they would be assessing damage to underground utilities such as gas and sewage that could be damaged, as well as to homes and businesses in the area.

"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. Officials were most concerned on Thursday about the Delaware River in southeast Pennsylvania and New Jersey.


The National Weather Service warned there could be severe thunder storms across New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland later in the day.

The Delaware was expected to crest in Trenton at 4 p.m. on Thursday. Mayor Doug Palmer urged people to conserve water because floods had closed a filtration plant, leaving just one and a half day's supply of water until it is fixed.

More than 1,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders from a section of single-family Trenton homes along the river and the flood water reached half-way up front doors.

Melvena Barnes, 26, and her one-week-old baby had left their apartment in the area to stay with her mother. "We're making the best of it," she said. "I'm moving. I've been here for four years and the floods just keep getting worse."

Binghamton remained partly flooded and the nearby town of Conklin was worst hit in New York, though the water was going down, said Broome County spokeswoman Darcy Fauci.

The National Weather Service was still posting flood warnings for large parts of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

The U.S. Internal Revenue Service said on Thursday its headquarters building in Washington was likely to remain closed for at least 30 days due to recent flooding. But repairs to the building will not affect tax services or enforcement operations, the IRS said.

(Additional reporting by Jon Hurdle in Wilkes-Barre, Matthew Verrinder in Trenton, David Lawder in Washington, Sarah Coffey, Ellen Wulfhorst and Claudia Parsons in New York)