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Residents Leave As Susquehanna River Rises


You know, if you have relations in wide regions of Pennsylvania, upstate New York, New Jersey, some other states, you may have spent time in the last couple of days - the way that we have in our home - staring at photos of continuing floods. First, it was Hurricane Irene and now it's Tropical Storm Lee that is pummeling the northeast many buildings under water. Heavy rains have led to the evacuation of almost 100,000 people who live near the rising Susquehanna River. It may be the worst flooding the region has seen in 40 years, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: Flooding started upriver in New York and moved gradually downstream into northeast Pennsylvania. By Friday morning, muddy brown water was spilling through the floodwall that stands between the river and downtown Wilkes-Barre.

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Dump trucks full of sand and gravel rushed in to help reinforce the flood wall and Wilkes-Barre Mayor Thomas Leighton looked worried.

Mayor THOMAS LEIGHTON (Wilkes-Barre): I've been watching the water coming through. It's picking up. We brought in some heavy equipment with some stone. We're going to put it against the wall and try and slow the leak down with sand - a combination of stone and sand.

ROSE: Wilkes-Barre hasn't seen water this high since Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972. That's when the Susquehanna flooded into downtown Wilkes-Barre. Local residents like Dave Domzalski(ph) still haven't forgotten that storm, which damaged or destroyed 25,000 homes and businesses, doing an estimate $1 billion in damage.

Mr. DAVE DOMZALSKI: And it was devastating. It was devastating. So hopefully it'll never come to this - that where it was in 1972.

ROSE: Today, Wilkes-Barre has a new levee system that was finished six years ago and county officials say it's holding up well - so far.

Mr. STEPHEN BEKANICH (Emergency Management Agency, Luzerne County): This is the highest test that we've ever faced. This is the highest levels we've ever seen on the new levees, and they're holding up very well.

ROSE: Stephen Bekanich runs the Emergency Management Agency in Luzerne County, which includes Wilkes-Barre. He says water is leaking through the floodwall, but that's nothing to worry about.

Mr. BEKANICH: That's actually designed to allow some seepage through that. So it actually relieves some of the pressure so the wall doesn't buckle. That water that folks saw today was normal. It was the way it was supposed to operate.

ROSE: Bekanich says he's cautiously optimistic that the levees around Wilkes-Barre will hold. Still, county officials ordered more than 65,000 people to evacuate their homes. And Bekanich worries that other riverfront towns may not be so lucky.

Mr. BEKANICH: We're dealing with a pretty catastrophic situation here, not only for the residents of Luzerne County, but also our communities, both the upstream and downstream. It's a flooding that most areas have never seen before.

ROSE: A few miles north of here, the Susquehanna flooded into the streets around the towns of Pittston�and�Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania. A hundred miles downriver in the state capital, Harrisburg, resident Chris Curtis gazed out at the river and worried.

Mr. CHRIS CURTIS: About it - big time. I mean, it's rising very quickly. I was just here a little earlier and it definitely came up a lot.

ROSE: Even the governor's residence, a block away from the river, had to be evacuated. But the governor himself had bigger problems to deal with.

Governor TOM CORBETT (Republican, Pennsylvania): If you haven't heard already, the turnpike is closed.

ROSE: Governor Tom Corbett briefed reporters at the state capitol, and he warned Pennsylvanians that the worst maybe yet to come.

Gov. CORBETT: There is a lot of damage, and I hate to say it, we're going to have more. The water now flooding the cities in the north, as I said, is only going to flow in one direction, and that's downstream.

ROSE: It may be several days before the floodwaters recede, revealing the full extent of damage along the river.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.