BLOOMSBURG, Pa. – The swollen Susquehanna River began returning to its banks Friday in Pennsylvania and New York after swamping thousands of homes and businesses in some of the highest floodwaters ever seen. But most of the 100,000 people forced from their homes could do little more than worry as they waited for the all-clear.
"I haven't even been able to get close to it to see what's left. I don't know what we're going to do," said 68-year-old Carolyn White of West Pittston, Pa., who is disabled and uses a scooter to get around. Her son managed to get close enough to see that the first floor of her house was flooded, but that was about all she knew.
The Susquehanna and its tributaries raged out of control after the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee dumped heavy rain on the already-soggy Northeast on Thursday. In many places, the river broke the high-water records set nearly 40 years ago in the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Agnes.
Swirling brown waters carried off at least 10 houses in Pennsylvania alone, spilled into basements, lapped at doorsteps and filled some homes to the rooftops, forcing rescues by boat and helicopter and putting severe strain on the floodwalls that protect some towns. Downstream, communities in Maryland awaited the worst from the still-rising river.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett issued a stern warning to evacuated residents to stay away: "This is still a dangerous time, even though it's nice and sunny out."
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. President Barack Obama declared states of emergency in Pennsylvania and New York, opening the way for federal aid.
The central Pennsylvania town of Bloomsburg endured its worst flood in more than a century as the Susquehanna inundated hundreds of homes, destroying some of them. The high water prevented fire crews from reaching blazes in a high school maintenance shed and the town's recycling center.
The river crested at nearly 42.7 feet Thursday night in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. — beyond the design capacity of the region's levee system and higher than the record set during Agnes in 1972. Officials said the levees keeping back the Susquehanna were under "extreme stress" but holding, and crews scrambled to shore up weak points.
Corbett toured the region by helicopter and scolded residents who scaled the weakened levees or walked across partially flooded bridges to get a closer look at the river.
"There were many people out on the street oblivious to the danger they were in," he said.
About 135 water and sewage plants in Pennsylvania were flooded, causing sewage to spill into streams and rivers. The state capital of Harrisburg evacuated 6,000 to 10,000 residents in low-lying areas, while about 70,000 people were ordered to leave the Wilkes-Barre area.
As the northernmost reaches of the Susquehanna began retreating, the first of about 20,000 evacuees in the city and suburbs of Binghamton, N.Y., returned to their homes to survey the damage from what the mayor called the worst flood in more than 60 years.
Robert Smith made it back home around noon. Mud and debris covered the pavement, and water still blocked streets closest to the river. But he said 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 came a week and a half after the dousing that Hurricane Irene gave the East Coast. And even before Irene, this was a wet summer in much of the Northeast.
In West Pittston, which is upriver from Wilkes-Barre and is not protected by levees, 300 to 325 homes were flooded — a tough blow in a community of only about 5,000 residents. National Guardsmen used a boat Friday to rescue 11 people, including two children, trapped on the second floor of a house.
Floodwaters covered street after street, inundating some homes to the roof. One homeowner who got 18 inches in his basement during Agnes was flooded with eight feet of dirty river water this time around.
Rescuers in Wyoming County, upriver from Wilkes-Barre, pulled more than a dozen people from their stranded cars and got a family of three into a boat just before their home was swept into the Susquehanna.
The heavy rains also shut down parts of the Capital Beltway in Fairfax County, Va.
In Maryland, most of the 1,000 residents of Port Deposit were told to evacuate after the big Conowingo Dam, upstream on the Susquehanna, opened its spill gates and flooded the town with four feet of water. Hundreds more were told to leave their homes in Havre de Grace, where the river empties into the Chesapeake Bay.
Rubinkam reported from Wilkes-Barre and West Pittston. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Michael Hill and Michael Gormley in Binghamton; Chris Carola in Albany, N.Y.; David Dishneau in Hagerstown, Md.; and Alex Dominguez in Port Deposit, Md.