HARRISBURG, Pa. – Tens of thousands of people forced from their homes in Pennsylvania were allowed to return Saturday as the Susquehanna River receded from some of the highest floodwaters ever seen, swollen by remnants of Tropical Storm Lee.
Other residents evacuated from river towns in New York and Maryland were waiting for permission to return as officials surveyed flooding damage.
In northeastern Pennsylvania, officials lifted an evacuation order Saturday afternoon for as many as 60,000 of 70,000 residents in and around Wilkes-Barre. The rest would likely be able to return later Saturday and into Sunday, said Luzerne County Emergency Management Agency Director Stephen Bekanich.
The Susquehanna's level had dropped to about 32 feet Saturday morning and was expected to be back within its banks at about 29 feet, Luzerne County Commissioner Maryanne Petrilla said.
Bekanich estimated damage was in the tens of millions -- but could have been more than $3 billion if levees hadn't held.
"The levees held," Bekanich said. "The levees performed magnificently."
Much of the Northeast was still soggy from Hurricane Irene and its aftermath a week earlier by the time Lee's rainy remnants arrived.
The Susquehanna crested Thursday at nearly 42.7 feet in Wilkes-Barre, higher than the record set during catastrophic Hurricane Agnes in 1972, and at 25.7 feet in Binghamton, N.Y. The river reached a 15-year high of 32.4 feet Friday at the Conowingo Dam in northeastern Maryland.
At least 15 deaths have been blamed on Lee and its aftermath: seven in Pennsylvania, three in Virginia, one in Maryland, and four others killed when it came ashore on the Gulf Coast last week. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said Saturday state officials had received reports of five additional deaths from the storm, but that the circumstances of those deaths had not been confirmed.
President Barack Obama declared states of emergency in Pennsylvania and New York, opening the way for federal aid.
Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan said officials were working on modifying evacuation orders issued in flood-prone neighborhoods so that people whose homes weren't flooded could possibly return over the weekend. Some of the 20,000 evacuated Binghamton-area residents had begun returning Friday.
"We're going to redraw the lines to make sure anyone who should go back, can go back so they don't feel like they're doing anything wrong," Ryan said.
Ryan could not say when the orders would be lifted entirely, noting that inspectors would need to check for any safety hazards from flooded gas and electric utilities.
Most of the 1,000 residents of Port Deposit, Md., were told to evacuate because of flooding expected from the opening of flood gates at the Conowingo Dam to relieve pressure on the Susquehanna. Cecil County officials will decide when residents can return after a damage assessment Saturday afternoon, spokesman Mike Dixon said.
"It's going to take a little bit of time," Dixon said of the assessment. "The utilities are off, there's lots of contamination down through there, so that is a substantial obstacle yet to be worked on."
The town's sewage treatment plant is also out of service, Dixon said.
Flood waters had receded by midday from Port Deposit's Main Street, which parallels the river, but still covered many areas. A large tanker truck was on the street providing water to crews spraying off the mud-caked roadway.
Bill Herold, who owns The Susky River Grill, sweated in a T-shirt and shorts in front of a smoking double barrel grill making meals for people cleaning up downtown. He said his waterfront restaurant was high enough to escape flooding.
"We lost our back deck and our little beach area we had. Just no power," Herold said. "For us, it's a loss of revenue, for us you know but for everybody else we want to help the people that are in town, the people that stayed, everybody's trying to do something."
Hundreds of other residents were told to leave Havre de Grace, Md., where the river empties into the Chesapeake Bay. Harford County spokesman Bob Thomas said those residents may be able to return home Saturday or Sunday.
In central Pennsylvania, a nighttime curfew remained in effect in flood-stricken parts of Harrisburg. One person was arrested for looting, Mayor Linda Thompson said.
Ellie Martindale, a retired nurse who has lived in Harrisburg's riverfront neighborhood of Shipoke for 30 years, was one of the first residents to return Saturday since city officials ordered an evacuation Thursday.
Because her home is elevated, built over a first-floor garage, Martindale said the damage was minimal -- mainly mud washed in by about 4 feet of river water that also ruined the drywall in an entrance leading from the garage.
"The mud is on the floor and on any surface it could settle," she said. "It's lovely stuff. It clings."
Martindale said she plans to remain in a downtown hotel until her house is cleaned up -- hopefully only a few days more.