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As Susquehanna recedes, towns assess Lee's damage

As the Susquehanna River and its tributaries receded Saturday from some of the highest floodwaters ever seen, tens of thousands of people forced from their homes were left to imagine the devastation that awaited them.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tens of thousands of people forced from their homes in Pennsylvania were hoping to return and assess the damage Saturday as the Susquehanna River receded from some of the highest floodwaters ever seen from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee.

In northeastern Pennsylvania, officials hoped to lift an evacuation order Saturday afternoon for about 70,000 residents in and around Wilkes-Barre. The level of the Susquehanna River had dropped to about 32 feet on Saturday morning and was expected to be back within its banks at about 29 feet, Luzerne County Commissioner Maryanne Petrilla said.

"We're asking people to be patient because we have a lot of logistics to work out with transportation and getting utilities turned on," Petrilla said. "We know people are anxious to get home, but we don't want them to go to a home that has no power or to an area that is still flooded."

The Susquehanna crested Thursday at nearly 42.7 feet in Wilkes-Barre, higher than the record set during catastrophic Hurricane Agnes in 1972, and at 25.7 feet in Binghamton, N.Y. The river reached a 15-year high of 32.4 feet Friday at the Conowingo Dam in northeastern Maryland.

At least 15 deaths have been blamed on Lee and its aftermath: seven in Pennsylvania, three in Virginia, one in Maryland, and four others killed when it came ashore on the Gulf Coast last week. President Barack Obama declared states of emergency in Pennsylvania and New York, opening the way for federal aid.

Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan said officials were working on modifying evacuation orders issued in flood-prone neighborhoods so that people whose homes weren't flooded could return as early as Saturday. Some of the 20,000 evacuated Binghamton-area residents had begun returning Friday.

"We're going to redraw the lines to make sure anyone who should go back, can go back so they don't feel like they're doing anything wrong," Ryan said.

Ryan could not say when the orders would be lifted, noting that inspectors would need to check for any safety hazards from flooded gas and electric utilities.

Most of the 1,000 residents of Port Deposit, Md., were told to evacuate because of flooding expected from the opening of flood gates at the Conowingo Dam to relieve pressure on the Susquehanna. Cecil County officials will decide when residents can return after a damage assessment Saturday afternoon, spokesman Mike Dixon said.

"This is going to take a while. There is still water in Port Deposit," Dixon said.

In central Pennsylvania, a nighttime curfew remained in effect in flood-stricken parts of Harrisburg. One person was arrested for looting, Mayor Linda Thompson said.

Ellie Martindale, a retired nurse who has lived in Harrisburg's riverfront neighborhood of Shipoke for 30 years, was one of the first residents to return Saturday since city officials ordered an evacuation Thursday.

Because her home is elevated, built over a first-floor garage, Martindale said the damage was minimal — mainly mud washed in by about 4 feet of river water that also ruined the drywall in an entranceway leading out of the garage.

"The mud is on the floor and on any surface it could settle," she said. "It's lovely stuff. It clings."

Martindale said she plans to remain in a downtown hotel until her house is cleaned up — hopefully only a few days more.


Walters reported from Philadelphia. Associated Press writers Martha Raffaele and Ron Todt in Philadelphia and Alex Dominguez in Port Deposit, Md., contributed to this report.