Northeast turns to flood recovery after Lee

Recovery efforts in the aftermath of flooding from Tropical Storm Lee focused Monday on reopening roads and bridges, cleaning the grimy layer of mud left by receding waters and tallying up the millions of dollars in damage wrought by days of drenching rains last week.

For people in riverside towns prone to flooding, it felt familiar.

"The long haul now will be the money thing, the estimating, the recording, getting estimates on different things," said Mayor Norm Ball of Tunkhannock, a northeastern Pennsylvania town where parts of the business district were inundated by high waters from the Susquehanna River and tributaries. "It's quite a process — I've dealt with it before."

In Pennsylvania, about 1,100 customers were still without power, more than 200 roads remained closed and 18 state and local bridges had damage, with another 64 on a precautionary list, emergency officials said Monday. The state was establishing a joint task force to coordinate recovery efforts, with disaster response centers to be located in affected areas.

The tentative statewide death toll dropped from 13 to 11, a change that the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency could not immediately explain. The total figure may be revised again as death certificates are issued.

Authorities pulled the body of a Manheim man from Chiques Creek in Lancaster County on Sunday evening, the Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era reported. The man was walking through flood waters Thursday when the current knocked him over, and he was swept away after holding on to a utility pole for about 20 minutes, the newspaper said.

Tests were being conducted at a home after a 62-year-old West Pittston woman died from inhaling some sort of gas, the Luzerne County coroner told The Citizens' Voice of Wilkes-Barre. Initial tests showed there was very little oxygen in the house, which had 3 feet of groundwater in the basement.

More than a foot of rain fell in many communities over the five-day period that ended Friday, said meteorologist Jason Krekeler with the National Weather Service in State College. Harrisburg International Airport, which averages about 4 inches of rain in September, was deluged by 13.4 inches over that five-day period.

"One thing to keep in mind is, a lot of these areas were hit fairly hard by (Hurricane) Irene as well, with 3 to 4, 5 inches in some locations," he said.

Across the region, preliminary damage assessments were being conducted on the ground and by air because parts of the state remain inaccessible, said Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency spokesman Cory Angell.

"You don't just open a road when the water goes away," Angell said. "You have to inspect, find out what damage has occurred. Is the bridge stable, for example."

He urged people with losses to report them to their local governments because the dollar value factors into the state's eligibility for federal relief.

As a sign that life was starting to return to normal, the American Red Cross said Monday that only two or three evacuation shelters remained open, down from 16 on Saturday.

New Cumberland, across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, lifted its state of emergency Monday after the Yellow Breeches Creek, a tributary of the river, returned to its banks, said borough council president Jack Murray.

In some places, the flooding left a 2-inch layer of mud, and workers have been spraying down roadways to clean it up. About a dozen structures had major damage, Murray said, but most people got out well before the high water hit.

"We had great cooperation from the people who live in the area that was flooded," Murray said. "We only had to tow one car, and my understanding (is) that was people who had to leave quickly."

In York County, bordered by the Susquehanna and the Maryland line, preliminary figures showed 19 homes or businesses were destroyed by flooding, along with another 146 with major damage and some 600 with minor damage, county officials reported.

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau has fielded reports of damage from throughout the state, including a Wyoming County dairy that had to dump a tank of milk because delivery trucks were blocked by bad roads, a Bradford County winery that lost 10 tons of grapes worth $15,000 and an aquaculture operation that lost $1.75 million worth of fish and equipment from flooding at facilities in York and Lebanon counties.

The bureau says farm losses in the state could reach tens of millions of dollars.

Residents of Pine Grove, a small town in Schuylkill County where the Swatara Creek became a raging river and flooded about 200 homes, were placing ruined belongings by the curb, ripping up soggy carpeting and drywall and pondering how long it will take them to recover from the worst flooding in perhaps a century.

Kelly Maher and Jeff McCurdy, a couple with two children under age 10, were overwhelmed by the task.

Their newly renovated first floor took on 4 feet of water, but they did not have flood insurance and he was recently laid off from his job at a masonry company. They lost furniture, a TV, a computer, kitchen appliances and cabinets and important documents.

McCurdy, 43, ripped away wall paneling to expose soggy wall studs that have already begun to grow mold. He questioned whether it's even worth rebuilding.

"I'm afraid it won't be safe for the kids," he said Monday. "What happens in six months?"

"I haven't cried yet. I'm still in shock," said Maher, 31, who works in accounting at, of all places, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission. "It's as depressing as it gets."

Throughout the Northeast, residents and officials were surveying damage, working on recovery and in some cases, still coping with high waters.

It could be Wednesday before the Passaic River in New Jersey falls below flood stage, forecasters said. Moderate flooding was occurring, and a flood warning was in place at two places along the river, Pine Brook and Little Falls.

In Port Deposit, Md., a few roads were opened on a limited basis Sunday, but the town still required residents along those roads to get permission before returning home. Most of the 1,000 residents had been told to evacuate because of flooding expected from the opening of flood gates at the Conowingo Dam to relieve pressure on the Susquehanna.

In hard-hit Binghamton in southern New York, some residents were being allowed to return home during daylight to begin cleaning up. Schools and businesses were reopening Monday, and classes were resuming at Binghamton University, the Press and Sun-Bulletin reported.

In Apalachin, in Tioga County just west of Binghamton, residents slogged through thick layers of mud as they returned home to check on their properties, many of which are likely to be condemned, officials said.

"Everything in my house is pretty much garbage," John Prosinski, 41, told the newspaper. "I'd rather not come back, but my daughter is in first grade. She loves her school."


Rubinkam reported from Pine Grove.