BLOOMBSBURG, Pa. – Northern stretches of the swollen Susquehanna River began receding Friday after days of rainfall from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee flooded communities from Virginia to New York, leading to evacuation orders for nearly 100,000 people. Some evacuees were allowed back home.
The damage was concentrated along the Susquehanna in Binghamton, N.Y.; in towns up- and downriver from levee-protected Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where more than 70,000 people were told to evacuate; and communities farther downstream in Maryland.
The Susquehanna crested at 42.66 feet Thursday night in Wilkes-Barre -- beyond the design capacity of the city's levee system and higher than the record set in historic flooding spawned by Hurricane Agnes in 1972.
"They did what was right for them, the people down there," said Tom Vaxmonsky, a resident of West Pittson, just upstream from Wilkes-Barre. "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."
As flood waters that inundated the city of Binghamton, which the mayor called the worst in more than 60 years, and surrounding communities began subsiding, the first of the 20,000 evacuees began returning to their homes.
Robert Smith, 35, made it back around noon to his home in a struggling section of Binghamton. Mud and debris covered pavement, and water still blocked streets closest to the river. But he felt inspired by the time he spent in a shelter; when a woman collapsed on the floor there, he said, strangers rushed to tend to her.
"Everybody was helping each other out, just total strangers," he said. "You've never seen it before in your life."
The flooding was fed by days of drenching rains from what had been Tropical Storm Lee, and followed a little more than a week the dousing that Hurricane Irene gave the East Coast. In some areas of Pennsylvania, the rainfall totals hit 9 inches or more, on top of what was already a relatively wet summer.
Authorities in Pennsylvania closed countless roads, including some heavily traveled interstates, and evacuation shelters opened to serve the many displaced people.
In Wilkes-Barre, officials said the levees holding back the Susquehanna were under "extreme stress" but holding.
A broken flood gauge had hampered officials' ability to measure the river's height, but the U.S. Geological Survey on Friday estimated that the river had crested at 42.66 feet, well above earlier estimates and higher than the 1972 record of 40.9 feet.
Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority executive director Jim Brozena said the river was dropping Friday but that the flood control system was at its "extreme limits."
The heavy rains also shut down parts of the Capital Beltway in Fairfax County, Va., but some portions have reopened. As much as 10 inches of rain has fallen in some places in the area around Washington since Wednesday.
In Maryland, most of the 1,000 residents of Port Deposit were told to evacuate after the massive Conowingo Dam, upstream on the Susquehanna, opened its spill gates and flooded the town with 4 feet of water. Hundreds more were told to leave their homes in Havre de Grace, where the river meets the Chesapeake Bay.
The river at the dam crested Friday morning below record levels but wasn't expected to recede until into the night. Shelters opened in Perryville and Aberdeen, with river levels projected to be their highest since Agnes.
President Barack Obama declared states of emergency in Pennsylvania and New York early Friday, clearing the way for federal aid. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell also declared an emergency, authorizing state agencies to help localities cope.
Evacuees had been told to expect to stay at least until Sunday or Monday, and it will be some time before officials get a handle on the damage that included a partial bridge collapse in northern Pennsylvania, vehicles and other property swept away, and failed sewage treatment plants.
"We're going to have some damage, but you won't know until it's over," said Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton.
People in many small towns and rural areas in central Pennsylvania scrambled to get their families and their belongings out of harm's way as waters sometimes rose with frightening speed.
In West Pittston, unprotected by the levees, several hundred homes were under water -- many to the second floor, said former Mayor Bill Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy's own home was among those inundated.
It was the same story downriver in Plymouth Township, where floodwater swamped about 80 businesses and houses.
Farther down the Susquehanna in Bloomsburg, flood waters topped the height reached by Agnes and were expected to crest just short of the record set by a 1904 flood.
Harrisburg evacuated 6,000 to 10,000 residents in low-lying areas, while in Luzerne County, Pa., which includes Wilkes-Barre, the evacuation order covered all communities along the Susquehanna River that were flooded in the historic Hurricane Agnes deluge of 1972.
Late Thursday, Wilkes-Barre city crews scrambled to plug holes in the city's elaborate flood control system with sandbags. The river's dramatic rise began to slow, giving hope that the walls and earthen mounds would hold.
In nearby places unprotected by the levee system, however, emergency officials expected flooding of 800 to 900 structures, with the river likely to crest above some rooftops.
At least 12 deaths have been blamed on Lee and its aftermath: four in Pennsylvania; three in Virginia; one in Maryland; and four others killed when it came ashore on the Gulf Coast last week.
There were also mandatory evacuations in a neighborhood along the Housatonic River in Shelton, Conn., just as residents were mopping up from the mess Hurricane Irene left behind.
"I even have fish swimming in my garage, that's a first," Brian Johnson told the Connecticut Post. "There's minnows swimming in there."
Damage in parts of New Jersey that were inundated by Irene's rainfall was less than feared. About 300 residents waited to return home after Lee's remnants renewed flooding. Three houses were swept off their foundations by a mudslide, but no one was injured.