Video: Susquehanna River crests at a record 42.7 feet

  1. Closed captioning of: Susquehanna River crests at a record 42.7 feet

    >>> now to the latest natural disaster we have been covering. in the northeast, entire towns are still submerged after the double jeopardy of flooding from hurricane irene and now tropical storm lee . the susquehanna river is moving massive amounts of water tonight. new york, virginia and maryland are experiencing major flooding and the river reached record flooding in pennsylvania where nbc's anne thompson has been covering it all. good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. the path of destruction was determined by the levees and even though they're under extreme threat tonight, they are holding. but here there is no protection, many homes and many lives have been devastated. it was a day of unnerving discovery.

    >> that's my sister's house and we're katty corner to her.

    >> reporter: but the water made it impossible for katy callaghan to get to what she's lost. whole neighborhoods swallowed up by the susquehanna river . carl made the muddy trek to his parents' house, their backyard swimming tool sunk by more than two feet of water.

    >> the swimming pool is under there.

    >> reporter: inside the tv room and basement, all damaged by the flooding. in some spots a boat was the only way to get around. noting fire crews rescued those who didn't evacuate. but even in this mess, some still refuse to leave.

    >> we're staying, we're good. we got food and water.

    >> good luck.

    >> we just want to get them out.

    >> reporter: west pitston is not protected by levees.

    >> they wanted a view of the river, now they got their view of the river and it's all in their homes.

    >> reporter: the susquehanna crested -- officials say this flood damaged some 350 homes, a quarter of the houses in this borough. tonight the evacuation order here in lucern county continues as the water hasn't receded enough to let people back into their homes. staff and news service reports
updated 9/9/2011 3:05:24 PM ET 2011-09-09T19:05:24

Northern stretches of the swollen Susquehanna River began receding Friday after days of rainfall from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee flooded communities from Virginia to New York, leading to evacuation orders for nearly 100,000 people. At least 11 deaths have been blamed on Lee.

In Wilkes-Barre, officials said the levees holding back the Susquehanna were under "extreme stress" but holding.

The damage was concentrated along the Susquehanna in Binghamton, N.Y., in Wilkes-Barre, where more than 70,000 people were told to evacuate, and communities downstream in Maryland. The Susquehanna crested at 42.66 feet Thursday night in Wilkes-Barre — beyond the design capacity of the city's levee system and higher than the record set in historic flooding spawned by Hurricane Agnes in 1972.

"They did what was right for them, the people down there," said Tom Vaxmonsky, a resident of West Pittson, just upstream from Wilkes-Barre. "But it's like everything else, for every action there's a reaction. And the reaction is that we got a lot more water than we did in '72 with the Agnes flood."

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As flood waters that inundated the city of Binghamton, which the mayor called the worst in more than 60 years, and surrounding communities began subsiding, the first of the 20,000 evacuees began returning to their homes.

Robert Smith, 35, made it back around noon to his home in a struggling section of Binghamton. Mud and debris covered pavement, and water still blocked streets closest to the river. But he felt inspired by the time he spent in a shelter; when a woman collapsed on the floor there, he said, strangers rushed to tend to her.

"Everybody was helping each other out, just total strangers," he said. "You've never seen it before in your life."

Adding to hardship, officials warned that the floodwaters had been tainted with sewage and other toxins and urged people to use extra caution.

"We face a public health emergency because sewage treatment plants are underwater and no longer working," Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said. "Flood water is toxic and polluted. If you don't have to be in it, keep out."

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The flooding was fed by days of drenching rains from what had been Tropical Storm Lee, and followed a little more than a week the dousing that Hurricane Irene gave the East Coast. In some areas of Pennsylvania, the rainfall totals hit 9 inches or more, on top of what was already a relatively wet summer.

Authorities in Pennsylvania closed countless roads, including some heavily traveled interstates, and evacuation shelters opened to serve the many displaced people.

Levees under 'extreme stress'
In Wilkes-Barre, officials said the levees were under "extreme stress".

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A broken flood gauge had hampered officials' ability to measure the river's height, but the U.S. Geological Survey on Friday estimated that the river had crested at 42.66 feet, well above earlier estimates and higher than the 1972 record of 40.9 feet.

Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority executive director Jim Brozena said the river was dropping Friday but that the flood control system was at its "extreme limits."

The heavy rains also shut down parts of the Capital Beltway in Fairfax County, Va., but some portions have reopened. As much as 10 inches of rain has fallen in some places in the area around Washington since Wednesday.

In Maryland, most of the 1,000 residents of Port Deposit were told to evacuate after the massive Conowingo Dam, upstream on the Susquehanna, opened its spill gates and flooded the town with 4 feet of water. Hundreds more were told to leave their homes in Havre de Grace, where the river meets the Chesapeake Bay.

The river at the dam crested Friday morning below record levels but wasn't expected to recede until into the night. Shelters opened in Perryville and Aberdeen, with river levels projected to be their highest since Agnes.

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President Barack Obama declared states of emergency in Pennsylvania and New York early Friday, clearing the way for federal aid.

Evacuees had been told to expect to stay at least until Sunday or Monday, and it will be some time before officials get a handle on the damage that included a partial bridge collapse in northern Pennsylvania, vehicles and other property swept away, and failed sewage treatment plants.

"We're going to have some damage, but you won't know until it's over," said Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton.

Video: Susquehanna River crests at a record 42.7 feet (on this page)

People in many small towns and rural areas in central Pennsylvania scrambled to get their families and their belongings out of harm's way as waters sometimes rose with frightening speed.

In West Pittston, unprotected by the levees, several hundred homes were under water — many to the second floor, said former Mayor Bill Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy's own home was among those inundated.

It was the same story downriver in Plymouth Township, where floodwater swamped about 80 businesses and houses.

Video: River ‘up 30 feet in about 36 hours’ (on this page)

Farther down the Susquehanna in Bloomsburg, flood waters topped the height reached by Agnes and were expected to crest just short of the record set by a 1904 flood.

Harrisburg evacuated 6,000 to 10,000 residents in low-lying areas, while in Luzerne County, Pa., which includes Wilkes-Barre, the evacuation order covered all communities along the Susquehanna River that were flooded in the historic Hurricane Agnes deluge of 1972.

Late Thursday, Wilkes-Barre city crews scrambled to plug holes in the city's elaborate flood control system with sandbags. The river's dramatic rise began to slow, giving hope that the walls and earthen mounds would hold.

In nearby places unprotected by the levee system, however, emergency officials expected flooding of 800 to 900 structures, with the river likely to crest above some rooftops.

At least 12 deaths have been blamed on Lee and its aftermath: four in Pennsylvania; three in Virginia; one in Maryland; and four others killed when it came ashore on the Gulf Coast last week.

There were also mandatory evacuations in a neighborhood along the Housatonic River in Shelton, Conn., just as residents were mopping up from the mess Hurricane Irene left behind.

"I even have fish swimming in my garage, that's a first," Brian Johnson told the Connecticut Post. "There's minnows swimming in there."

Damage in parts of New Jersey that were inundated by Irene's rainfall was less than feared. About 300 residents waited to return home after Lee's remnants renewed flooding. Three houses were swept off their foundations by a mudslide, but no one was injured.

The Associated Press, Reuters and contributed to this report.

Photos: Flooding in northeast US

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  1. Floodwaters from the Susquehanna River partially submerge homes in West Pittston, Pa., on Friday, Sept. 9. Days of rainfall from what had been Tropical Storm Lee inundated a wide portion of Pennsylvania and other northeastern states Thursday, pouring into basements and low-lying homes and forcing tens of thousands of people to seek higher ground. At least 11 deaths have been blamed on Lee and its remnants. (Matt Rourke / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A 'Swings Coffee' van lays along the banks of Cameron Run, in Alexandria, Va., on Sept. 9, after it was caught in floodwaters on Thursday night. (Cliff Owen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A National Guardsman carries a dog named Charlie as residents are rescued from the Susquehanna River in West Pittston, Pa., on Sept. 9. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. The ramps from Route 42 going on and off Route 11 in Bloomsburg, Pa., disappear into the floodwaters from Fishing Creek which cover Route 11 on Sept. 8. (Jimmy May / Bloomsburg Press Enterprise via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The roadway is buckled at the off ramp of the Route 322 East Hersheypark interchange in Derry Township, Pa., on Sept. 8. (Dan Gleiter / The Patriot-News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rich McDave, Chad Bowman, Deb Bowman, and Rebecca Cummins ride out in a motorboat after helping Rob Jackson remove valuables from his deceased parents' home in Goldsboro, Pa., on Sept. 8. (Chris Dunn / York Daily Record via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Airplanes sit on the west of the runway at the Bloomsburg Airport, in Bloomsburg, Pa., as the Susquehanna River inundates the airport on Sept. 8. (Jimmy May / Bloomsburg Press Enterprise via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Elaine Delzeit, center, ties sandbags next to rising floodwaters in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Sept. 8. (Matt Rourke / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. From the top of the image, the second and the sixth home in the 900 block of West Main Street in Bloomsburg, Pa., have been moved off their foundations by floodwaters from Fishing Creek, on Sept. 8. (Jimmy May / Bloomsburg Press Enterprise via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The flooded Little Conewago Creek blocked the Susquehanna Trail in York County, Pa., on Sept. 7. (Bil Bowden / York Dispatch) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Floodwaters from Chickies Creek traps vehicles, blocking Route 72 on Thursday Sept. 8, 2011 in Manheim, Pa. The Pennsylvania National Guard was called in to help with evacuations and to transport emergency workers. (Dan Marschka / Lancaster Newspapers via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Members of Cambria County Water Rescue, help Donna Macloed out of the boat after rescuing her, from her home in Swatara Township, Pa. on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011. Late the night before, the flood waters of the Swatara Creek started pouring into Macloed's house but it was too dark for her to evacuate. The Cambria County Water Rescue unit was dispatched to the area in anticipation of rising water and expects to remain busy thru the weekend. (Daniel Shanken / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. View of the Susquehanna River from the fifth floor of the Guard Insurance Building Thursday, September 8, 2011, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The Susquehanna is projected to crest in the northeastern part of the state between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Thursday at 41 feet - the same height as the levee system protecting riverfront communities including Wilkes-Barre and Kingston, officials said. More than 100,000 residents were ordered to flee the rising Susquehanna River on Thursday. (Mark Moran / The Citizens' Voice via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Jorge Garcia bails rainwater from his row boat in preparation for the expected cresting of the Passaic River following an overnight storm, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011 in Wayne, N.J. Residents along the Passaic River are still cleaning up after Irene with the remnants of Lee expected to drop anywhere from 2 to 5 inches of rain. Forecasters say New Jersey's streams and rivers remain at or in flood stage. (Julio Cortez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Playground equipment is submerged in Port Deposit, Md., Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011, as rainfall from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee causes flooding along the East Coast.The National Weather Service predicted rain would continue to fall heavily across the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states through Thursday with anywhere from 4 to 7 more inches falling and up to 10 inches in isolated pockets. Flood watches and warnings were in effect from Maryland to New England. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Wilkes-Barre evacuees Kim R. and her daughter Arianna J., 5, rest on their cot at the G.A.R. High School shelter location in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011. Nearly 100,000 people from New York to Maryland were ordered to flee the rising Susquehanna River on Thursday as the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee dumped more rain across the Northeast, closing major highways and socking areas still recovering from Hurricane Irene. (Kristen Mullen / The Citizens' Voice via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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