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Pa. towns assess Lee’s damage

Residents return to communities hit hard by floods

Thousands forced to evacuate in western Pennsylvania were expected to start returning to their homes as flooding along the Susquehanna and its tributaries began to recede yesterday. Thousands forced to evacuate in western Pennsylvania were expected to start returning to their homes as flooding along the Susquehanna and its tributaries began to recede yesterday. (Ralph Francello/The Citizens’ Voice via Associated Press)
By Patrick Walters
Associated Press / September 11, 2011

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HARRISBURG, Pa.- Many of the 70,000 people forced from their homes in Pennsylvania were allowed to return yesterday and assess the damage from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee as the Susquehanna River receded from some of the highest flood waters ever seen.

The river in Wilkes-Barre had dropped to about 32 feet yesterday and was expected soon to be back within its banks at about 29 feet.

The Luzerne County Emergency Management Agency said the evacuation order for about 50,000 to 60,000 of the evacuees was lifted yesterday afternoon and the rest of the residents were expected to be allowed to return overnight.

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 Obama declared states of emergency in Pennsylvania and New York, opening the way for federal aid.

Mayor Matt Ryan of Binghamton said officials were working on modifying evacuation orders issued in flood-prone neighborhoods so that people whose homes weren’t flooded could return yesterday. 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, spokesman Mike Dixon said.

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

Farther south, in waterlogged northern Virginia, the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee on the heels of Hurricane Irene a week and a half earlier closed roads, schools ,and a commuter rail line, and a retaining wall was brought down near a townhome complex, causing evacuations.

In the flood-prone Huntington neighborhood near Alexandria, Saul Romero borrowed a plastic storage bin to float his 2-year-old daughter up the street to dry land.

“I was just worried for my daughter,’’ he said, as he and others used hoses to wash inches of slimy mud off their sidewalks.

In Maryland, the Susquehanna reached a 15-year high of 32.4 feet Friday at the Conowingo Dam and was expected to remain near that level into the night, the National Weather Service said. Dam gates were opened to relieve pressure on the river.

The central Pennsylvania town of Bloomsburg endured its worst flood in more than a century as the Susquehanna inundated hundreds of homes, destroying some of them. The high water prevented fire crews from reaching blazes in a high school maintenance shed and the town’s recycling center.

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