When the Connecticut Yankees first discovered this part of Northeastern Pennsylvania; they discovered a beautiful valley along the banks of the Susquehanna River. They also discovered to their misfortune that this valley is exceptionally prone to flooding. Flooding makes great farm land, but is also an omnipresent peril that affects the lives of everyone in the valley; those that live in the flood plain and those who live on higher ground. For as long as people have lived in this valley, all of the townships and boroughs along this stretch of the usually placid Susquehanna River have experienced significant flooding whenever the river rose and flowed over her relatively low banks.
The Susquehanna River Basin is one of the most flood-prone watersheds in the entire nation. The main stem of the Susquehanna and its many tributaries drain 27,510 square miles of New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Since records were first kept in the early 1800s, the main stem of the Susquehanna has flooded every 20 years, on average.
St. Patrick's Day, 1936
Although numerous floods occurred in the Wyoming Valley, and some levees had been constructed to try to prevent wide-spread flooding, the valley was unprepared for the flood that struck on St. Patrick's Day, 1936. That day the Susquehanna crested in Wilkes-Barre and Kingston at 33 feet, and flood waters flowed for miles across the Wyoming Valley.
The devastation wrought by the 1936 flood brought construction funding from Washington in the form of a valley-long, flood protection levee - at a flood stage of 36 feet. Subsequently, the Susquehanna River rose to flood stage in 1946, 1955, and 1964, with the levees providing substantial protection.
Agnes - June 23, 1972
In June of 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes roared into Northeastern Pennsylvania and New York State and rained, and rained, and rained. More than a foot and half of rain fell - hard - making torrents of every small stream, creek and ditch. Water, from everywhere, rushed into the swollen Susquehanna River, and the usually placid big river rose dramatically.
Even though 530,000 sandbags were added to the top of the existing levees, the big river won the battle -- dramatically. The river rose to 40.9 feet, 18.9 feet above flood stage, and 4 feet above the levees that were built after the flood of 1936. The river flowed over the fertile plains - as much as two miles toward the Wilkes-Barre and Penobscot Mountains on the east, and as much as one and a half miles toward the Back Mountain, Larksville Mountain, and Plymouth Mountain on the west.
Stories are told of fourteen feet of water in the historic Paramount Theater in downtown Wilkes-Barre, and an average of nine feet of water throughout Public Square in Wilkes-Barre. A billion dollars of destruction was inflicted on every business, every family and every institution in the Wyoming Valley. Until Hurricane Andrew came ashore in Homestead, Florida in 1992, Agnes was the largest natural disaster in U.S. history, and she remains vividly on the memory of everyone who met her wrath.
Nixon and Flood Promise a Remedy
President Richard M. Nixon came to town shortly after the flood waters receded and promised, "We'll fix this and it will never happen again."
Despite President Nixon's promise, it was Wilkes-Barre's legendary Congressman Daniel Flood who sternly proclaimed to the people of Luzerne County, "This is one Flood versus another Flood," as he personally became engaged in the clean-up efforts in his district in the summer of 1972. Thanks to the Congressman's relentless efforts, leadership, and influence, every federal resource necessary was made available to the shocked and homeless residents of Luzerne County.
Once the immediate, quality of life needs of the residents had been met, Congressman Flood contacted the Army Corps of Engineers, and began what turned out to be a long and laborious administrative process to raise the levees throughout the length of the valley; to increase the levees' height so that never again would a flood threaten this valley.
A Laborious Process
The first report on necessary repairs to the levees came from the Army Corps of Engineers in 1979, but no funding to make those repairs was appropriated by Congress throughout the 1980s. Nothing happened; some refurbishment and strengthening took place, but nothing was done to increase the height of the levees to prevent "another Agnes."
January, 1996 - The Blizzard of the Century
Then in early January 1996, the Blizzard of the Century was followed by rapidly warming temperatures and heavy rain. The Susquehanna River rose rapidly along its entire length and began to flood communities from the middle of New York State to the Chesapeake Bay. Fortunately, the flood waters did not top the levees in the Wyoming Valley, although they came within 18 inches.
Clinton Promises a Remedy
Following that "near miss," President Bill Clinton came to the valley, and dedicated the resources of the federal government to a long-term flood protection program that will raise the levees throughout the Wyoming Valley to protect residents from a flood even greater than Agnes. Thanks to a determined partnership among federal, state and county officials, construction on the Wyoming Valley Levee Raising Project began in the spring of 1997. It was estimated at that time that the project would cost $145 million, with the federal government providing seventy percent, and the Commonwealth providing 12.5% of the funds. Luzerne County's Commissioners issued bonds for their 12.5% obligation.
The structural components of the project included heightening five sections of existing levees, demolishing two bridges, and refurbishing sanitary and storm water pump stations. Refurbishment of thirteen pumping stations - to pump waste water and storm water up and out of the valley and into the flooded river - was included within the actual project, thus providing 75 percent federal funding and saving Luzerne County more than $23 million.
By January 2003, increased flood protection levels along the entire stretch of the Wyoming Valley were completed. New levees on the west side of the river from Wyoming and Forty Fort through Kingston and on down to Plymouth are complete. An impressive recreational component was included as part of this western levee.
River Common in Wilkes-Barre
The major remaining project is the River Common area in the heart of downtown Wilkes-Barre. Because of the location of the city adjacent to the Susquehanna River, the levee is the most prominent feature all along River Street. Indeed, a first-time visitor to Wilkes-Barre might spend an entire day and never see the river, and maybe not even know the magnificent Susquehanna River is just on the other side of that large embankment.
Under the new design for the River Common, two attractive and functional portals will be constructed in the flood wall. The southernmost opening will be located at the end of Northampton Street near Wilkes University; the other opening will be across from the Irem Temple.
Incorporating an attractive design that preserves the River Common as the heart and soul of Wilkes-Barre, these portals will afford easy access to the river for recreational uses; planning, design, and funding for this last phase of the Wyoming Valley Levee Raising Project are all nearing completion.