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Agnes Hit Wilkes-Barre Like a Flock of F-111's

City Awakens from Nightmare

By Steven Reed and Elizabeth Samuels

Private vehicle and trucks are now being permitted in the Wilkes-Barre area. Those entering their homes for the first time should be prepared for an emotional shock.

Driving down interstate 81 through the green hills of eastern Pennsylvania one week after Hurricane Agnes swept over the countryside, the only indications that one is approaching the town most devastated by the storm are the few swollen streams along the highway and the bulletins broadcast continuously on WBRE, the Wilkes-Barre radio station.

If your house was flooded, look for sinking foundations, cracks in walls or baseboards, and other signs of collapse. You may have to scrape mud off the walls with a shovel, or wash down the walls with a hose to prevent rotting.

The floodwaters were most savage in Wilkes-Barre because the town lies at the bottom of a bowl-like depression surrounded by high ridges. The main street of the city is normally about level with the river and only enormous grass-covered 20-foot dikes separate the Susquehanna from the business district. Driving down "Five-Mile Hill" on the main road into Wilkes-Barre one can easily see how a rescue worker from Scranton could say, "It's just a hole."

Pocono Downs, the Wilkes-Barre horse track, lies above the town on one of the ridges. It was there, as millions witnessed on network television, that many of the 100,000 evacuees from the city were first brought. In the midst of betting windows and grandstand seats, displaced residents were given temporary shelter and emergency first aid before being scattered out to Civil Defense refuges and hospitals around Luzerne County. Once emergency operations were switched to the Wilkes-Barre-Scranton Airport the track reverted to its former function and within a week after the disaster ponies were again trotting where weary refugees had sought shelter.

One week after the Susquehanna had breached the dikes and roared through Wilkes-Barre, the waters receded from the downtown area enough to permit people to re-enter the city and begin the clean-up. Those who were able to return to their homes and businesses found a scene of devastation unlike anything Americans--unfazed by two World Wars--are accustomed to.

Steel bridges were reduced to twisted ruins as if shelled by flocks of F-111's. Empty hulks with blackened windows remained where entire blocks of the downtown area had been burned out. National Guardsmen in muddy Jeeps patrolled the streets and MP's directed traffic through intersections choked with mud. Most grotesquely, twisted and mangled mannequins lying outside shattered store windows grimly suggested the carnage of a beseiged city.

If your basement is still flooded, do not pump it out too fast as the pressure of the surrounding earth may cause the walls to collapse. Do not attempt to turn on your own electricity if any water is still in the house, even a damp floor. Do not connect any electrical appliances which have been under water.

All power was off in Wilkes-Barre Thursday morning as the cars and trucks poured into town filled with clean-up crews and families nervously searching for their homes through streets suddenly unfamiliar. The powerless stoplights, coupled with a six-inch layer of brown sludge on the streets, made driving an eery adventure. At a few intersections, civilian deputies or grey-uniformed security police gestured rather futilely at the haggard drivers, but for the most part improvisation prevailed.

There is a report that telephone service is operating in Wilkes-Barre and Kingston. You can make local to local calls, but you are urged to use discretion because only 4800 lines are operating

Every store and house bore the clear mark of the high water, a chocolate streak ranging from 6 to 12 feet up the side of the building. The ground floors of most homes and businesses were completely devastated. With nearly all store windows broken out, waterlogged and mud-crusted merchandise furniture and food lay rotting in the summer sun.

The first step everyone took in cleaning up was to drag all their possessions out of their homes and pile them in great muddy heaps in the streets. One could usually identify stores by the kind of merchandise stacked outside, if by little else. Many people appeared to ignore their damaged belongings, to cast them off forever. Others compulsively hosed and scraped items like radios and hair dryers which would obviously never work again.

Looting was widely reported in Wilkes-Barre, but little of it seemed to be malicious. Old women and little kids walked the streets with shopping bags, digging though piles of rubble for muddy garments of the proper size. One 11-year-old carrying a radio with an inch of light-brown clay on it told a younger friend, "Just take somethin' and come on, will you?" Despite his friend's "No, I don't wanna," he continued sifting through the muddy heap of department store goods.

Few storeowners seemed to mind. Most stood and watched while people picked through the refuse and some even encouraged passersby: "Take what you want, everything's ruined." A less lenient opinion came from a phone company employee in a yellow rain slicker who said to a fellow worker. "You know what they ought to do to those looters?--take out a gun and shoot them on the spot."

All employees of the First National Bank of Eastern Pennsylvania report to the Dallas Village branch for work Monday morning in old clothes. The most disquieting aspect of South Main St., the hardest hit commercial area of town, was a ragged by persistent burglar alarm in the Bell Furniture Store which someone had accidently touched off in reopening the building. The alarm, which ran off its own power supply, always seemed about to die, but rang on in loud starts throughout the day. The crews of employees cleaning out shops along the street ignored the sound, however, just as they ignored everything except the immediate task at hand, putting from their minds the enormity of the struggle ahead.

The alarm only added to the general din of the reawakening city. Besides the noise of heavy traffic, the guttural thrum of private generators and heavy-duty pumps resounded from every block as people attempted to bail out the last vestiges of their week-long baptism.

The wife of Daniel Haas is to contact Keyser Medical Center immediately Daniel Haas is in room 304.

Free food and medical care was available for flood victims throughout the week at the Airport where Scranton Mayor Eugene G. Peters had organized an emergency Flood Committee to coordinate Red Cross, Salvation Army, Civil Defense and local aid. Volunteers from states all over the East poured into the Airport to man food dispensaries and information services and live on a couple of hours of sleep every day. "We had whole carloads of people coming in from nearby states wanting to help out," Carmen Minora, one of the mayor's aides said. "It was really good. In fact, if anything, we had more volunteers than we needed."

An old woman picked among the boxes of clothing at the airport looking for a pair of shoes. "We got plenty of clothes, but we need shoes the right size. My house was washed clear away, off the foundation you know, right after they got me out by helicopter." The juxtaposition of heartbreaking loss with strikingly petty immediate concerns was not unusual.

After what you've been through, you deserve a break. So come on out to McDonald's and bring the whole family.

A short, wrinkled woman with faded blonde hair who is wearing a mud-spattered white raincoat walks along the sidewalk of the Memorial Bridge above the recently-receded waters of the Susquehanna. She is walking on broken white high heels, swaying awkwardly with each step. "I haven't got anything," she shouts to a passerby, "do you?" She walks on talking in a strained voice: "Well, we're safe and sound at my sister's and it's very nice but my aunt and I we both got it to the second floor and I had to wait in the attic until they got us out. Everybody in my neighborhood got it coming through the second floor ceiling. I haven't got anything." She pauses, then heads off with determination. "But I'm going home."

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