Susquehanna River, PA Hurricane Agnes Flood of 1972
(2 of 3)
Those who cannot look forward to moving back in before winter, loan or no loan, sit and wait for the trailers from HUD; arrows on large, hand-painted signs show the HUD drivers where the trailers should be placed—if and when they come. The arrival of the trailer often marks the start of another long, frustrating wait. Harry and Gladys Nusbaum spent 16 days in their trailer with no water, sewage, heat, electricity. Last week the water, sewage and electricity were hooked up, but there is still no heat. Harry, who drove his own bakery truck, no longer has a job because the bakery was flooded. "Maybe it's a good thing he lost his job," says Gladys. "It gives him a chance to spend all day on the phone to HUD. It's always tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. Tomorrow is winter, and this thing is cold at night. I don't know. Every time I look over at the house I get sick. It's just a hole in the ground. I'm 50, Harry's 63. We'll survive, but I don't know what for; sometimes I wish I could have gone with the house. Every time we look at it, we think the nightmare will be over—we'll wake up and everything will be all right."
The debris thrown into the streets tells the story in chapters. The first thing out of the house was the mud. Next went the stuffed furniture, ruined by mildew. People were still trying to save their small appliances after they had scrapped televisions, washers, refrigerators. When they realized they couldn't fix the toasters and blenders either, they too went out onto the street. Then they stripped the wet plaster and finally the flooring, till only the shell remained.
Through the time of the mud, there was a frenzy to clean up, and there was hope and expectation. Now the guts of the houses lie out in the street, and the magnitude of the damage stuns. Everyone is tired. Nerves are stretched and tempers short. Families are waiting to see what their neighbors will do—and what the Government will do. And, cruelly, on Sundays the tourists descend, pointing at the wreckage and aiming their Instamatics. Some have got spit on their lenses.
"People are going through a period of desolation," says Dr. Edward Whalen, staff psychiatrist at the county mental health center. "The number of people seeking help doubled in the fifth week after the flood. One man finished all the cleaning, then sat in front of his house for three days with the hose in his hand, not moving. His wife brought him in and he's functioning now." So far, five valley residents have committed suicide because of the flood.
For some, adversity has proved the mother of equality. One gaily forlorn crack: "Glad I knew you when you had money." Recalls George Spohrer, a leading lawyer in Wilkes-Barre: "It was back in the days when we were wading knee-deep in mud. Everyone looked as bad as the next. A neighbor stopped shoveling mud, walked over to me and said. Two things I'm learning from this disaster. One: a 25¢ calendar covers the wall like a $10,000 painting. Two: when your furniture is out on the curb, it doesn't look any different from anybody else's.' "
(3 of 3)
Adversity has also spawned heroics and malice in equal measure. Lutherans, Mennonites and other volunteer groups continue to arrive by the busload from surrounding areas to help people clean out their homes by day, while by night, looters steal the minor domestic treasures spread out on the lawn to dry. Loretta Curley left her flooded house on July 1. She came back on Aug. 10 to find looters had taken one toilet, light fixtures, a sink, fittings and accessories, doorknobs, the kitchen light, the record collection and two snow tires.
The citizens of Wilkes-Barre are still putting up a brave front. Hand-painted signs display both hope and humor: THE "VALLEY WITH A HEART" COMING BACK BETTER THAN EVER; GOD STILL LOVES US, I GUESS; KEEP AMERICA BEAUTIFUL—DON'T LITTER. But the ordeal is far from over and the outcome far from certain. Says one store owner: "Oh, I say, 'Comin' back better than ever,' and 'Rebuild we will,' but I don't believe it. How is business going to get started again? Who has money to spend?" Says another: "This is either going to be the goddamndest greatest town in the country or the goddamndest ghost town." But one thing does seem certain—no one in Wilkes-Barre will soon again take his river for granted. "I cleaned out whole shelves of books the other day," says Newspaper Reporter Libby Brennan, "and came across this book called The Beautiful Susquehanna. I threw it out."
Bob Hope visited Wilkes-barre. He also ran a fund raiser for flood victims
FLOOD RELIEF TELETHON
Broadcast date: 7/22/72 (6 hrs.)
Network: locally produced by WBAL-TV Baltimore.
Janssen helped friend Bob Hope by flying to Baltimore to appear on his telethon to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Agnes. The 6-hour telethon was broadcast to 19 other cities in 6 states and raised over $2 million.
Merv Griffin served as a co-host and John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Steve Allen, and Joe Namath, and First Lady Pat Nixon were others who participated. Zsa Zsa Gabor, Fess Parker, and Mike Douglas also were scheduled to appear.
Some photos from a blog
The Tropical Storm Agnes flood of 1972 is still the benchmark by which all floods are measured. The Susquehanna River reached 32.57 feet at Harrisburg during the flood, more than three feet higher than the previous record, set in 1936.