Flooding continuing to plague Eastern Pa.

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HARRISBURG - The swollen river bordering the state's capital city is now expected to crest at a lower level than previously expected, though public officials will still be busy dealing with the aftermath of that flooding.

The Susquehanna River is expected to reach about 26.5 feet by this evening, after having reached about 25 feet in Harrisburg overnight. Officials at the National Weather Service previously predicted it would crest around 29 feet.

But already those waters have spilled over the banks at low-lying spots here, with several streets near the Governor's Residence flooded two blocks from the river. Those residing in the first few blocks parallel to the river were to evacuate yesterday, with Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson threatening hefty fines for those who ignored an overnight curfew.

The state Capitol offices are closed today, with all non-essential employees asked to stay home.

Gov. Tom Corbett announced at a late-evening press conference that more than 1,200 National Guard troops are on flood duty, and by Thursday evening had evacuated 60 people by ground, as well as 76 people and six dogs by air.

He and other officials are repeating warnings that residents not drive through standing water or go near flooded areas, where a misstep could quickly turn into a rescue situation.

Five people have been confirmed dead as a result of the central Pennsylvania flooding, including an 8-year-old Lancaster County boy who was swept off his feet by rushing water.

Elsewhere, the Susquehanna crested above 38 feet, below the top of the levee system protecting tens of thousands of residents in northeastern Pennsylvania, the National Weather Service said early today.

The Susquehanna River in Wilkes-Barre had been forecast to crest near 41 feet, about the same height as the levee system protecting the city and surrounding towns, but the weather service said the swollen river was slowly receding from a level above 38 feet.

A broken gauge at Wilkes-Barre prevented experts from determining the exact crest, said weather service hydrologist Dave Ondrejik. But he said officials at the weather service and in Luzerne County are confident the river will not go back up because the waterway has already crested in upstream communities.

Luzerne County Commissioner Stephen Urban had said earlier today that the river crested at 38.83 feet around 9:35 p.m. Thursday. The weather service said that was the last reading pulled from the gauge before it broke but that the river likely ticked a bit higher.

Regardless, it was the second-highest level ever recorded for the Susquehanna in Wilkes-Barre.

As many as 75,000 residents in Wilkes-Barre and surrounding riverfront communities remain under a mandatory evacuation. Mr. Urban said the river is still far too high to allow people back home.

Near-record flooding along the Susquehanna and its branches -- at levels not seen since Hurricane Agnes in 1972 -- has killed five people in Pennsylvania and inundated hundreds of homes over the past few days. Rain from Tropical Storm Lee pounded the state earlier this week not long after Hurricane Irene soaked the same areas.

President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Pennsylvania early today, clearing the way for federal aid. Pennsylvania's lawmakers in Washington had urged the president to grant Gov. Tom Corbett's request for assistance.

Mr. Corbett on Thursday declared a Level 1 emergency -- last done on Sept. 11, 2001 -- and ordered state offices in Harrisburg, Reading and Scranton closed Thursday and today, affecting about 25,000 nonessential employees.

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency said 14 wastewater treatment plants had been taken offline by flooding and residents were urged to stay away from flood waters over concerns about toxicity.

In West Pittston, north of Wilkes-Barre and unprotected by the levees, several hundred homes were underwater -- many to the second floor, said former Mayor Bill Goldsworthy, now an official in Mr. Corbett's northeast regional office. Mr. Goldsworthy's own home was among those inundated.

West Pittston resident Tom Vaxmonsky called the flooding worse than the Hurricane Agnes flooding.

Mr. Vaxmonsky watched the water levels drop early Friday outside his home, which is usually three-quarters of a mile from the Susquehanna. He said he believed the levee system that kept waters contained downstream made his community more susceptible to flooding because it could not spread over a larger area.

"They did what was right for them, the people down there," Mr. Vaxmonsky said. "But it's like everything else, for every action there's a reaction. And the reaction is that we got a lot more water than we did in '72 with the Agnes flood."

Mr. Vaxmonsky said a sewer line backup in the Agnes flooding had affected his home, but this time he had water pouring in through his basement windows.

Farther down the Susquehanna River in Bloomsburg, flood waters on Friday exceeded the height in 1972 by more than a foot and were expected to crest just short of the record set by a 1904 flood.

Columbia County Public Information Officer John Thomas said about a quarter of Bloomsburg is affected by floodwaters and several homes were swept off their foundations by the rushing waters.

"There's going to be a major damage assessment, I'm sure," Mr. Thomas said early this morning. "Those things can't be determined right now because of the difficulty in getting to the places affected."

Bloomsburg Fire Chief Bob Rupp told WNEP-TV that a high school athletic building was on fire but his crews couldn't get close enough to fight the flames.

PEMA spokesman Cory Angell said this morning the state has begun moving resources, particularly swift water rescue personnel, from northeastern to central Pennsylvania as flooding upstream crests and subsides.

There was flooding in other parts of the state, including along the Delaware River, which crested in Easton and Riegelsville at around 5:15 a.m., according to the National Weather Service.

Hundreds of roads across the eastern half of the state were closed by flooding. A nearly 40-mile stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike closed Thursday evening because rising waters threatened a bridge in Dauphin County, but the turnpike reopened in time for the morning rush hour after water levels dropped and engineers checked the bridge for problems.

Laura Olson: lolson@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254. First Published September 9, 2011 1:30 PM


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