WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — Relentless rain caused catastrophic flooding in the eastern United States on Thursday, killing at least five people and forcing the evacuation of more than 130,000 in three states.
Remnants of Tropical Storm Lee, days after slamming the Gulf Coast, swamped homes and businesses from Maryland to New England and dropped up to a foot of rain outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which declared a state of emergency.
Flood warnings were in effect in northern Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, and upstate New York, and flood watches were under way in other areas from Massachusetts to Washington, D.C., according to the National Weather Service.
In Pennsylvania, the rising waters of the Susquehanna River forced the evacuation of 65,000 people from Wilkes-Barre and another 35,000 from surrounding counties, said Stephen Urban, commissioner of Luzerne County.
Eight feet of water covered normally picturesque river towns like Tunkhannock and Shickshinny, and residents who disregarded the evacuation rode out the flood in their bedrooms and attics. Others flocked to refuge centers.
The typically meandering river was turned into a roiling toxic mess after washing out 10 sewage processing plants, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett said.
"We're worried about people even getting near the water," Corbett told a news conference.
The river was expected to crest at 40 feet 8 inches at 8 a.m. on Friday, a level just below the 41 feet that levees in Wilkes-Barre were built to withstand, Urban said. Authorities imposed a curfew in cities along the surging river.
"After 8 o'clock, we'll start arresting anyone who stays in this area," a patrolman shouted over a bullhorn as patrol cars cruised Wilkes-Barre.
At curfew, the dark brown river was lapping 2 feet below the top of an earthen levee protecting the west bank of the river. Water seeped into the streets under a temporary floodgate set up to protect Market Street, one of Wilkes-Barre's main thoroughfares.
Streets were silent at dusk, with businesses such as fast-food restaurants and 24-hour pharmacies shut. Low-lying towns to the north of the city were already starting to flood.
"Almost every town along the Susquehanna River has experienced flooding," Governor Corbett said.
At least five people were killed in Pennsylvania and Virginia. In Hershey, Pennsylvania, a homeowner trying to bail water out of his flooded basement died with a wall collapsed. In Lancaster County, a 62-year-old woman in her car was caught in flood waters, and a man was swept away as he tried to walk through rushing water 12 to 18 inches deep, authorities said.
In Virginia's Fairfax County, flash floods swept away two people, a 12-year-old boy in his family's backyard and a man in his sixties who was outside his car, said Lucy Caldwell, spokeswoman for Fairfax County Police.
"The water rose so quickly and so abruptly. It was terrifying," Caldwell said.
Rivers and creeks still swollen by Hurricane Irene two weeks ago threatened cities and towns throughout Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, and were poised to smash records.
"It's like Irene without the wind," meteorologist Elliot Abrams on Accuweather.com said of torrential rains predicted to continue through Thursday night.
In upstate New York, mandatory evacuations were declared for about 20,000 residents in Binghamton, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said. More evacuations were reported in other towns of Broome County, near the Pennsylvania border, as well as in Schenectady and Schoharie counties.
Public health nurses gave tetanus shots to more than 1,200 residents and rescue workers in an effort to prevent disease from contaminated flood waters in Schoharie County.
Maryland also ordered several towns to evacuate, including Havre de Grace, population 11,000, and Port Deposit.
In Philadelphia-area flooding, mud and rock slides closed the busiest commuter highways, such as the Schuylkill Expressway and U.S. Route 1, as well as railways including four heavily traveled commuter lines.
Among New Jersey roads closed were busy Route 73 and parts of Route 29 in Trenton along the banks of the Delaware River.
In New York, Amtrak shut rail service west of Albany and officials expected many closures on the New York Thruway.
© 2023 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.