MALLENTOWN, Pa. – Heavy rains brought flooding to eastern and central Pennsylvania, forcing thousands to evacuate and damaging businesses and homes as officials braced for the possibility that major rivers would jump their banks. At least four people died.
Rivers such as the Schuylkill, the Delaware and the Susquehanna were not expected to crest until later in the week. The storm that lingered for days over the eastern half of Pennsylvania finally cleared out early Wednesday, raising hopes that flooding along major waterways wouldn't be as severe as anticipated.
"This big show is over, as far as the rain is concerned," said Paul Head, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in State College.
But plenty of damage has already been done and the region's largest rivers were rising. Gov. Ed Rendell declared a disaster emergency in 46 of the state's 67 counties Wednesday, saying the storm had caused a "major hardship" for local governments.
"We're seeing flooding all over the eastern and central portions of the state," said Justin Fleming, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.
The city of Reading asked residents who live near the Schuylkill to evacuate Wednesday morning after the river swamped the campus of Reading Area Community College and a meatpacking plant and floodwaters began to approach homes.
Flooding along streams and creeks washed out roads and bridges, filled basements and prompted county and municipal officials to declare states of emergency Tuesday. Residents in low-lying areas were asked — and in some cases, ordered — to evacuate. Dozens of shelters opened, and virtually the entire state was under a flood watch or warning.
The National Guard was called into Schuylkill County late Tuesday to help evacuate homes. Six communities were under water, and nearly 200 people took refuge in shelters, Art Kaplan, the county's emergency management director, said Wednesday. He said two cars plunged 70 feet when a gigantic sinkhole opened on Route 924 north of Pottsville; the fate of the occupants was unknown.
A 15-year-old boy drowned in Beech Mountain Lake in Luzerne County on Tuesday when he was swept down a spillway. His mother's boyfriend drowned trying to rescue the boy, according to Butler Township police.
Also Tuesday, an elderly man was killed after his car was washed over a bridge near Equinunk, on the New Jersey border, state police said. A 21-year-old woman was killed early Wednesday near Gettysburg in south-central Pennsylvania when she lost control of her car while driving through water and hit a truck.
Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton ordered a mandatory evacuation of homes near Solomon Creek, and county officials urged other residents in low-lying areas to move belongings to higher ground and be prepared for possible evacuations as the Susquehanna rose on Wednesday.
In the Philadelphia area, many roads were closed Wednesday, including the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Fort Washington. One commuter rail line was running a shortened route and trains on another line were skipping some stops because of flooded stations.
The flooded Conestoga River closed off heavily traveled U.S. 222 in both directions northeast of Lancaster during the Wednesday morning commute, and there were 34 water-rescue calls overnight in flood-prone areas, Lancaster County emergency management agency spokesman Ed Wickenheiser said.