Video: Thousands flee Northeast flooding

  1. Closed captioning of: Thousands flee Northeast flooding

    >>> good evening, well last night, it was los angeles , tonight's washington, last night it was the republicans, tonight it's the republicans, the speech to the joint session of congress , we'll get to all of it in just a moment. but first tonight, we have yet another natural disaster and a very big crisis. a cruel outcome of the relent less rains and flooding we have been suffering through in this half of the country. this happening now from maryland north to new england, and this is the work of tropical storm lee which just stormed through new orleans a few days back. tonight the worst of it is in wilk wilkes-barre, pennsylvania . combined evacuations over 120,000 people. it's where we begin tonight with nbc's anne thompson , she's in pennsylvania .

    >> reporter: the susquehanna river is expected to crest in the wee hours of the morning, but already officials are turning off the power and natural gas service to some homes in the wilkes -barre area. tonight pennsylvania is on its highest state of alert . this is the sound of trouble, creek s near wilkes -barre running over. the already swollen susquehanna river , carrying millions of gallons of extra water, pushing debris down the wyoming valley and swamping crucial infrastructure.

    >> we face a clear, public health energy. sewage treatment plants are under water and no longer working.

    >> reporter: where the river is expected to crest just below the 4 1/2 foot levee. he was just 5 in 1972 when hurricane agnes topped shorter lea levees and flooded moats of the area. what do you say if you stay behind ?

    >> you're on your own. if you're in the area and there's a problem, you may not get the assistance.

    >> reporter: the flood waters got to this home before she could get out.

    >> it's going to be a mess. i don't know how we're going to get it done after it goes down.

    >> reporter: today's rain brought now misery to waterlogged new york. 10,000 people forced from their homes ahead of the overflowing river. in new jersey, inundated by irene a week and a half ago, today punished by lee. in this yabneighborhood, 22 homes are condemned.

    >> there's nothing they can do.

    >> reporter: here in pennsylvania , the loss is even greater. four people died in the flooding, two in lancaster county . where tonight the roads and the susquehanna are indistinguishabe indistinguishable. tonight pennsylvania 's governor is warning to stay out of the floodwater, they could be toxic.

msnbc.com news services
updated 9/9/2011 12:49:51 AM ET 2011-09-09T04:49:51

The remnants of Tropical Storm Lee poured water on top of the already saturated Northeast on Thursday, closing off inland cities and interstates as about 100,000 people in three states were ordered to flee the Susquehanna River's worst flooding in nearly 40 years.

Lee's remnants also turned fatal for two people, including a child, swept away separately in rain-swollen waters Thursday night in Fairfax County, Va., NBC station WRC reported.

Most of the evacuations were ordered in and around Wilkes-Barre, where the levee system is just high enough to hold back the river if it crests at the predicted level. Even if the levees hold, 800 to 900 unprotected homes were in danger. If they fail, thousands of buildings could be lost.

"This is a scary situation," said Stephen Bekanich, Luzerne County's emergency management director. He said officials were confident the levees would work but were seeking volunteers to lay sandbags on both sides of the river.

In Hummelstown, another Pennsylvania community along the river, Donna MacLeod had to be rescued from her home.

More updates and images from the flooding in the Northeast from breakingnews.com

"I'm heartsick," she said. "I know I lost two cars and everything that was in my basement and everything that was on the first floor. But I have my life and I have my dog, so that's good."

Upriver in Binghamton, N.Y., a city of about 45,000, the Susquehanna coursed into the streets and climbed halfway up lampposts at a downtown plaza. Buses and then boats were used to evacuate residents, and National Guard helicopters were on standby.

Road closures effectively sealed Binghamton off to outside traffic as emergency responders scrambled to evacuate holdouts who didn't heed warnings to leave.

Story: Tropical Storm Nate spins off Mexico's coast

"It's going to get worse," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, warning people to leave when they get the order.

President Obama signed emergency declarations for New York and Pennsylvania Thursday night, ordering federal aid to supplement local efforts.

Up to 9 inches of rain fell in parts of Pennsylvania, and a similar amount fell in Binghamton. Rivers and streams passed or approached flood stage from Maryland to Massachusetts, and experts said more flooding was coming.

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The storm compounded the misery for some people still trying to bounce back from Hurricane Irene.

Fairfax County, Va., said a child died in the Piney Branch Creek in Vienna but they were not able to specify where the adult was lost. High water forced the closure of Interstate 95 on Thursday.

Some of the areas hardest hit by the August storm, such as Vermont, avoided the brunt of the latest bad weather. But in Paterson, N.J., where the Passaic River was rising, about 75 people were still in a shelter because of Irene.

"We just finished cleaning up after the flood from Irene," said Edith Rodriguez, who lived in shelters for three days and spent Wednesday night at a high school outside Schenectady, N.Y., because of Lee. "Now we have to start all over again."

Commuters and other travelers searched for detours as highways and other roads were flooded out, including sections of New York's Interstate 88, which follows the Susquehanna's path. In eastern Pennsylvania, where hundreds of roads were closed, flooding and a rock slide partially closed the Schuylkill Expressway, a major artery into Philadelphia.

Amtrak passenger service on New York's east-west corridor was canceled, as were classes at many colleges and schools across the Northeast.

msnbc.com

At least nine earlier deaths have been blamed on Lee: four in central Pennsylvania, one in Maryland and four others killed when it came ashore on the Gulf Coast last week.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett warned of "a public health emergency because sewage treatment plants are underwater and no longer working."

"Flood water is toxic and polluted," he said. "If you don't have to be in it, keep out."

The high waters were being blamed for the partial collapse of the Slabtown Bridge in Montoursville, Pa. No one was on the bridge at the time, authorities said.

Up to 75,000 residents in and around Wilkes-Barre were ordered to leave. The mayor told residents to pack food, clothing and medicine and plan for a three-day evacuation.

The river was projected to crest overnight at 41 feet — the same height as the levee system and nearly the level it reached in 1972, when Hurricane Agnes caused massive flooding in the area. Luzerne County officials ordered all communities flooded by Agnes to evacuate for the remnants of Lee.

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Rose Simko packed up her car and headed to higher ground to stay with family. She was worried about her house, just 150 feet from a levee, but knew she had to leave.

"Everything is replaceable," she said, "but my life is not."

Bekanich said several thousand people left their homes, but he did not yet have a complete total. Shelters prepared to handle close to 5,000 people were beginning to fill up, Luzerne County Commissioner Maryanne Petrilla said.

Some 20,000 evacuations were ordered for the Binghamton area, and another 6,000 to 10,000 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's capital. Crews put sandbags around the governor's mansion, and the first lady moved furnishings from the first floor as the river spilled over its banks.

At the mouth of the Susquehanna, hundreds of residents of Havre de Grace, Md., also were ordered to leave. In Port Deposit, Md., about 600 people were urged to evacuate as a dam's flood gates were opened to cope with the heavy rain. By 4 p.m. the town appeared to be nearly empty.

It is somewhat unusual to have this many evacuation orders for an American flood, though hurricanes such as Irene can force millions from their homes.

Similar-sized evacuations were ordered in the Northeast for floods in 1996 and 2006 and during the remnants of Hurricane Agnes in 1972. About 11,000 people were evacuated from flood-threatened neighborhoods in Minot, N.D., in July.

Forecasters warned that the dispiriting summer soaking wasn't over and flooding would last four days or more.

"I really feel sorry for people because the sun will be out next week but the water will still be rising in rivers and streams," said Mark Wysocki of the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University.

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Tom Graziano, chief of the Hydrologic Services Division at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, said many streams in the Northeast were showing the highest flows ever recorded for the date.

Irene "really primed the pump" in terms of saturating the ground, he said, "and now we're adding this tremendous amount of rainfall."

Though the storm was a remnant of Lee, Wysocki also blamed Hurricane Katia, far out in the Atlantic, for the lingering downpour.

He said Katia and a slow-moving high pressure system over Ohio "acted as blockers," producing a narrow corridor for the storm as it came north.

"The rain was funneled into a very narrow region, from eastern Virginia to Central Pennsylvania and south-central New York," he said. "It was a conveyor belt of warm, moist air being lifted up, condensed in the clouds, forming the precipitation and then just continuing to rain."

The Associated Press and NBC News contributed to this report.

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