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Death toll at least 16 for Northeast floods

Evacuation orders were lifted for 200,000 people in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., as levees hold. The floods have killed at least 16 people, and officials cannot yet estimate how much damage waters have caused.
Buildings and homes in Reading, Pa., were sitting in water on Wednesday after the Schuylkill River, top right, spilled over its banks.George Widman / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Muddy, coffee-colored floodwaters poured into homes, basements and stores on both sides of the Delaware River and rose as high as the street signs Thursday in some of the worst flooding to hit the Northeast in decades. At least 16 deaths were blamed on the deluge.

The city of Wilkes-Barre in northeastern Pennsylvania was spared when the newly raised levees held back the raging Susquehanna River, and officials lifted an evacuation order covering 200,000 people. But other communities drenched by days of record-breaking rain were not as lucky.

Along the swollen and still-rising Delaware River, thousands of people were driven from their homes, and officials closed 10 bridges connecting New Jersey and Pennsylvania because of high water. The floodwaters reached as high as the street signs in Easton, Pa. On the other side of the river in Lambertville, N.J., ducks swam down a street of shuttered antiques shops.

Drinking water dwindling
The supply of drinking water was dwindling in Trenton, a day after the Delaware River forced the city’s water purification plant to shut down, and Gov. Jon S. Corzine declared a statewide emergency.

New Jersey State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes warned people not to return home. “The sun is shining but the waters are still high. The Delaware is raging,” Fuentes said. “It will get better, but it will not get better today.”

Mary Iglesias, who was forced from her neighborhood in Trenton, worried about what she would find when her family is allowed to go back.

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No damage estimate
There were no immediate damage estimates. But New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine said the flood looked a lot like one in April 2005 that caused $30 million in damage.

Herbert Sandor, who owns a building on Main Street in New Hope, Pa. — a quaint town 30 miles north of Philadelphia that is popular with tourists and antiques collectors — said the 10 stores in the building he owns were spared, but basement offices, including those of his wife’s advertising agency, were under 5 feet of water.

“It’s a disaster,” he said.

Monica Taylor stood on the edge of the floodwaters in the flood-prone Island section of Trenton, wondering how badly her home had been damaged. In 2005, she had 2½ feet of water in her basement and was afraid there might be more this time.

“We’ve been through this before, but I don’t plan to get used to it,” she said.

More heavy rain and thunderstorms were possible in Pennsylvania and New Jersey late Thursday, but Friday was expected to be dry in most of the region.

In Maryland, a new round of evacuations was ordered in Cecil County as the rising Susquehanna threatened about 300 homes. About 2,200 residents downstream from a dam in Rockville were asked to stay away from their homes for fear the dam would break. Needwood Lake, 25 feet above normal Tuesday night, had dropped several feet by Thursday afternoon, but crews were still dumping loads of gravel on a leak.

‘Visions of Katrina’
At least 16 deaths in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and New York were blamed on the storms and the flooding. In New York’s Sullivan County, searchers found the body of a 15-year-old girl whose house collapsed as she stood on the porch waiting to be rescued.

Searchers also found the bodies of two Maryland boys, ages 14 and 16, who were swept away earlier this week after they went to look at a rain-swollen waterway.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people in and around Wilkes-Barre began returning home. Officials said at least 50,000 people obeyed Thursday’s evacuation order, some of them because of Hurricane Katrina’s example, or the trauma inflicted in 1972, when the remnants of Hurricane Agnes caused 50 deaths and more than $2 billion in damage in Pennsylvania.

“I think we all have visions of Katrina in the back of our minds,” Hank Rodolski, director of the city health department, said as he guided senior citizens onto the school bus that would take them back to their apartments and nursing homes.

‘Dodged a bullet’
Officials said they did not expect the river to rise above the city’s new 41-foot flood barriers, but worried that the pressure might cause the levees to fail.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said the state had “dodged a bullet.”

“That evacuation was smart, it was proper, it was appropriate, it was made in the name of caution,” Rendell said. He said a levee failure could have resulted in a “New Orleans-type situation in Wilkes-Barre.”

Noting the success of the Wilkes-Barre levees, New Jersey’s governor suggested that a similar cure was needed along the Delaware. “Repeat problems demand some kind of action be taken, judgments made,” Corzine said.

Officials in Plymouth Township, Pa., a community of about 2,100 people downriver from Wilkes-Barre, estimated more than 100 structures were damaged. Many homeowners had fixed up their places after floods in 2000 and 2005.

“If we could get rid of this house and move, we’d definitely move to higher ground. No doubt about it,” Robert Dunn, the township’s emergency management coordinator, said as he pumped out his basement. “It’s not the way to live.”

‘Rackets and birdies’
In Johnson City, N.Y., the swollen Susquehanna dropped several feet, giving some residents a chance to survey the damage and start cleaning up.

Erin Davis and her boyfriend, Chris Newton, both 25, took a break with a short game of badminton in the waist-high water in the street.

“We were cleaning when I saw a table top float by with the rackets and birdies,” Newton said. “We’re just trying to make the best of a bad situation.”