The book was big and the color of dried blood. It smelled of dust, like the books you find tucked in the back of the library. Many days I would sneak into my mother’s old bedroom at my grandparent’s house to snag it and turn it to the same page, over and over. I looked at the picture hundreds of times, sometimes studying the lines, other times taking it in as a whole, pondering it.
The black and white photo was of a decomposed corpse laying inside a coffin with an open lid, stuck in about a foot of mud. It was the result of the one natural disaster that changed this valley forever: the flood of 1972, caused mainly by Hurricane Agnes.
I had heard so much about it growing up. The smell, the panic, the fact that some people in boats in the streets of a town only a half hour away could touch the street lights as they were being rescued because the water was so high. People not leaving their homes, belongings being shifted to every house’s second floor, and, of course, coffins surfacing from graves and splitting open, purely from the rush of water.
From June 21 to June 24 the combined efforts of Hurricane Agnes and several other storm systems dumped between 10 and 18 inches of water on the area. The Susquehanna River, a mighty force that runs through this place, rose to nearly 41 feet, which was four feet higher than the levees that were in place at the time. On June 23 the water finally poured over, inundating the Wyoming Valley with miles and miles of rushing river.
At this time last year that water mark bumped up to a whopping 42.66 feet, setting a record and testing the newest levee system in place, as well as the nerves of many a valley resident.
In my time as a fresh journalist I didn’t think I’d see much, but I’ve been privy to the death of Joe Paterno and his beloved legacy’s downfall, two local homicides, and the surge of the Susquehanna that befell the area last year. That is what does, and probably always will, stick out in my mind the most.
A combination of storms Lee and Irene poured buckets on the area and talk of a flood began, but no one thought it would get as serious as the ole ’72 incident. It seemed like all of a sudden things turned dire. Towns were evacuated, gates that closed off a bridge leading to our major city sprung leaks, and though a new levee was in place it, too, was showing signs of weakness.
Fortunately, the levee and the bridge closure stayed but so many, many people were affected, including several I know. Even if they weren’t flooded out, I still saw what the threat of something like that could do to someone.
There are so many things I could say about my experience over those couple days – how we worked out of a makeshift newsroom because the city was evacuated, how I sat in traffic on my way home from my shift next to the levee that was starting to crack, mere moments before the area was cleared of residents, and how I helped my best friend clean out her mom’s house in the days following, covered in mud, throwing away prized childhood possessions.
I’ll tell them, but I’ll save it. For now, the pictures express more than any words I could ever jot down.