Inundated town still feels fortunate

Easton, Pa.

June 30, 2006|By TODD RICHISSIN | TODD RICHISSIN,SUN REPORTER

EASTON, Pa. -- Richard Baylor stood on a hill yesterday overlooking the coffee-colored rapids rushing over what had been a grassy downtown park, looked toward the washed-away road and the bridges that now led to nowhere but trouble, looked at the 12-foot-high statue of Christopher Columbus, once surrounded by land, now appearing like a noble buoy cast to sea.

Three times in two years, the Delaware and Lehigh rivers have claimed this portion of Baylor's town. But without hesitation yesterday, the 57-year-old hairstylist insisted that the town was lucky.

"It could have been far, far worse," he said. "We've all got a lot to be grateful for."

Flooding here and throughout the Northeast was bad, even deadly. But throughout the region, many people were talking just like Baylor yesterday: not so much about the 15 deaths and millions of dollars in damage caused by the deluge of water overflowing from rivers and creeks and streams-turned-lakes, but of the hundreds of thousands of people who could have lost their homes or their lives but did not.

"It's so sad, you want to cry," said Susan Francis, a 28-year-old researcher, looking across what had been Larry Holmes Drive, a road named after the former heavyweight boxing champion and longtime resident of the town. The road was at least 6 feet underwater. "It's still sad, but then you think about how bad it could have been."

In her town, just across the Delaware River from Phillipsburg, N.J., officials had warned that the banks were filling at such a rate that virtually no one except people on the highest hills should feel safe.

In the middle of all that filthy water yesterday, the strength of currents dragged uprooted trees like twigs down a stream as ducks blithely paddled in calmer water above washed-out streets. Helicopters circled overhead like giant wasps, all looking for cars or trucks and people in trouble.

Similar scenes played out across the region.

In Wilkes-Barre, to the north, where the Susquehanna River's sudden, powerful rise had led officials to order the evacuation of up to 200,000 people, the water stopped rising and the city was saved. But in little bowl-shaped areas to the north and south, houses and belongings and people were lost.

In the township of Bloomsburg, just west of Wilkes-Barre, roofs jutted from the water. Closer to the edge of the flooding, a stop sign barely above water looked more like a plea than an order.

On the border of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, officials closed 10 bridges connecting the two states, according to the Associated Press.

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine declared a state of emergency as drinking supplies dwindled in Trenton. The capital's water purification plant had been shut down.

At least 15 deaths in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and New York were blamed on the storms and the flooding. In New York's Sullivan County, searchers found the body of a 15-year-old girl whose house collapsed as she stood on the porch waiting to be rescued, according to the Associated Press.

Wherever people were in the worst-hit areas yesterday, the name Katrina and stories of the hurricane that assaulted the Gulf Coast last year were on lips.

Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell said, "We have dodged a bullet."

"That evacuation was smart, it was proper, it was appropriate, it was made in the name of caution," Rendell said of the warnings in Wilkes-Barre. He said a levee failure could have resulted in a "New Orleans-type situation."

"People listened for sure because of Katrina," said Bill Jones, a 62-year-old retiree held back from Easton's rushing waters by one of several police barricades in the town. "We saw what happened. And we remember what happened here before."

According to a disaster plan prepared by Lehigh Valley municipalities this year, 32 disaster declarations caused by weather have been issued since 1955, including 14 from major floods.

In 1955, dozens of people in the area were killed by flooding; in April 2005, high water caused at least $30 million damage on both sides of the Delaware River.

"When people say we're lucky," explained Jones, "mostly they're talking about '55 - but we've been battling the water ever since we've been living on it."

Stephen Allegar and his wife, Wave, said their battle with the water is almost over. He is 54 and she is 52, and when the April 2005 storm hit, water filled their basement and crept up a step in their home on Delaware Drive, off Lower Mud Run Road.

Yesterday, they were dry in Easton High School, one of several shelters that authorities had set up for those in the most danger. They were able to pack a few clothes. But nothing else.

Gyzmo and Spookey, their cats, had to be left behind. Also, Stephen Allegar said he is worried about the American flag that was used at the burial of his father, who had served in Korea.

"Certain things you can replace, but certain things you can't," he said. "Certain places you can go back to, certain places you can't."

Wave Allegar said she had just filled her small freezer with meat, bought in bulk to save money. That is surely gone. They are disabled, and not working, so where they will go after they can return to their house is uncertain, but they are not prepared to go through another flood.

"It won't be comfortable, but I suppose maybe we'll have to sleep in the car," Stephen Allegar said. "It's not like we have money for a hotel."

His wife touched his arm when he said that. "We can still hope for the best," she said. "But we're expecting the worst."

Then she corrected herself: "No. Not the worst. The worst is we could be dead, but we're lucky enough to be alive."

todd.richissin@baltsun.com

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