The command center was deep in the subbasement, beneath the county courthouse, an ideal fortress — in the event of nuclear attack.
It was not a particularly wise place to be during a tropical-storm incited flood that remains unparalleled for rain and destruction in Pennsylvania and a vast section of the Mid-Atlantic.
For all the trauma caused by Ida last year, its rain totals did not match those of Agnes in amounts or geographic coverage in the Mid-Atlantic. Agnes generated up to 25 inches of rain in the hills of the Keystone State, with amounts of 15 or more inches from Virginia to New York.
In all, Agnes was blamed for 128 deaths in 12 states, 48 of those in Pennsylvania, including a Philadelphia police officer who was trying to save an elderly Manayunk couple; two in New Jersey; and one in Delaware. It forced 362,000 people to evacuate.
Fifty years later, Agnes remains one of the nation’s worst natural disasters. Coming as the Cold War was thawing, it was a pivotal event in turning national attention to natural hazards. It was an impetus for the birth of FEMA and the disaster-assistance system; the investment of billions in mitigation measures; and led to rapid expansion of the National Flood Insurance Program.
It also underscored a glaring weakness in the hurricane-rating system.
As for whether an Agnes-scale flood could reoccur, federal officials say it is just a matter of when, given enhanced rainfalls associated with climate change.
Agnes-level rains likely would be far more destructive today given population growth and increased urbanization. They were bad enough 50 years ago.
The heaviest rains fell on June 22, priming the Susquehanna River, the Schuylkill, and an assortment of tributaries for spells of riot. Dammed waters and all hell broke loose the following day, when a 10,000-person sandbag brigade wasn’t enough to stave off flooding upstate. More than 2,500 coffins floated out of their graves in Forty Fort, Pa.; water swamped flood gauges and knocked out power to the U.S. Weather Bureau’s flood-warning center.
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Cort Morrison, at the time an 11-year-old evacuated from his Wilkes-Barre home with his family, recalled losing a precious memento — a basketball autographed by all-time great Wilt Chamberlain. Years later, he said, the stresses of Agnes would contribute to his father’s death. Morrison said Agnes’ losses taught him an invaluable lesson: Stop worrying about that basketball or anything else he owned. “I don’t care about stuff,” he said.
What was this thing?
The late climate guru Jerome Namias theorized that Agnes began as a cloud mass on the Pacific Coast of Colombia on June 9, 1972.
It migrated across the Isthmus of Panama and interacted with a potent cold front that had shattered temperature records, including in Philadelphia. It matured into a tropical storm and made landfall on the Florida Panhandle on June 19 as a minimal Category 1 hurricane with peak winds of 85 mph.
It was all about rain. The storm’s center tracked off the coast, passed New Jersey on the 22nd, made a left near New York City, and looped into northeastern Pennsylvania. By then it had lost its titles — “Tropical Storm” and “Hurricane” — and it was just plain Agnes. Its remnants were ingested by another storm to the west.
For Joel N. Myers, Agnes was a launching pad for AccuWeather Inc., which had just made fledgling moves into the broadcast business by signing on radio stations in the Agnes-affected areas of Binghamton, Philly, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. His skeletal staff provided flood updates to the stations around the clock.
Myers said the meteorologic circumstances were “unique.” Rain develops when warmer air rises above cooler air and condenses, and the leftover tropical moisture got additional lifts from the hilly topography and a “cold dome” that also kept the storm from moving, he said.
After an ultra-wet May, Agnes’ heavy rains were like lighter fluid on a fire.
‘Get out now.’
“Get out now. Get out now. The water is starting to come over your dike.” With that, Cort Morrison, his family, and tens of thousands of others evacuated Wilkes-Barre on the early morning of June 23, 1972.
The people at the command center deep in the county courthouse also had to get out. “It’s maybe 75 feet from the bank of the river,” said Mark J. Riccetti Jr., director operations and programs at the Luzerne County Historical Society. They decided, “Oh, we better relocate.”
At the time it made sense to locate the command center underground, said Mike Bilder, FEMA’s regional hurricane program liaison.
It was an ideal fallout shelter. “The biggest priority was nuclear warfare,” he said.
Agnes was a watershed moment for the nation’s awareness of storm threats, and its aftermath spurred the creation of FEMA and the era of multi-billion-dollar disaster aid that today we take for granted.
While overshadowed by the cosmic upstate flooding, Agnes had significant impacts in the Philadelphia region.
A month’s worth of rain deluged Philadelphia, but, as with Ida, the flooding was about what happened upstream.
The Schuylkill rose to a then-record crest in Norristown and one of its highest levels ever along what is now Martin Luther King Drive.
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Flooding reached the heights of first-floor ceilings along the river in Norristown, Phoenixville, and Manayunk.
The Brandywine Creek at the site of what was then the newly opened Brandywine River Museum also crested past the standing record.
Coming soon, Agnes II?
Ironically, people living along the hurricane-endangered coasts have an advantage over mainlanders, said Kelly Wolslayer, the FEMA regional-response division director. Hurricanes prowling the Atlantic or Gulf are sighted days in advance, allowing time for evacuations.
As Ida proved, flooding can happen in a hurry around here.
The fact that Agnes was a mere Category 1 speaks to the weakness of rating hurricanes based on wind only, officials agree. That has been an ongoing source of discussion, said Bilder.
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In the meantime, Rob Shedd, hydrologist with the National Weather Service’s Middle Atlantic River Forecast Center, in State College, the next Agnes is inevitable. In a recent podcast he said that people who weren’t around back then would be wise to acquaint themselves with what happened.
“A storm of this magnitude can and will happen again at some point,” he said.