HERSHEY, Pa. (AP) — More than 100,000 residents were ordered to flee the rising Susquehanna River on Thursday as the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee dumped more rain across the Northeast, socking areas still recovering from Hurricane Irene and closing major highways at the morning rush.
The Susquehanna is projected to crest in northeastern Pennsylvania between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Thursday at 41 feet — the same height as the levee system protecting riverfront communities including Wilkes-Barre and Kingston, officials said. Residents were ordered to leave by 4 p.m.
"There is no need to panic," Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton said. "This is a precautionary evacuation and the safety of our residents is our biggest concern. We have prepared for this type of emergency and we are ready to respond to whatever comes our way over the next 72 hours."
Wet weather followed by Hurricane Irene and its remnants have saturated the soil across the Northeast, leaving water no place to go but into already swollen creeks and rivers. Many areas flooding this week were spared a direct hit by Irene, but authorities took no chances in the same places inundated by historic flooding after Hurricane Agnes in 1972.
In Harrisburg, crews put sandbags around the governor's mansion as the Susquehanna, wide even on a normal day, spilled over its banks. About 90 miles to the northeast in Wilkes-Barre, Leighton said residents should prepare for an evacuation of 72 hours and advised them to take clothing, food and prescription medicine. He also asked city businesses to close their doors by noon.
The evacuations come as the remnants of Lee, which has caused flooding and power outages across the South since hitting the Gulf Coast last week, slogged northward.
The National Weather Service predicted rain would continue to fall heavily across the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states through Thursday with anywhere from 4 to 7 more inches falling and up to 10 inches in isolated pockets. Flood watches and warnings were in effect from Maryland to New England.
In New Jersey, where many residents were still cleaning up after Irene, the remnants of Lee were expected to drop anywhere from 2 to 5 inches of rain. There was some flooding along rivers including the Passaic, which breached its banks during Irene and caused serious damage. Heavier flooding is expected Thursday.
Roads and highways closed around the region. In Philadelphia, flooding and a rock slide closed the eastbound lanes of the Schuylkill Expressway, a major artery into the city, and it could take hours for the road to reopen.
Flash flooding shut down roads and closed schools in many parts of Pennsylvania. A bridge spanning the Delaware River between New Hope, Pa., and Lambertville, N.J., closed Thursday morning as flood waters carried debris downriver.
In New York, the Thruway Authority expected Thursday to close a 105-mile stretch of Interstate 90 where it runs along the Mohawk River, which had overflowed its banks in some areas. It's the state's most heavily traveled east-west highway.
In eastern New York, thousands of people were expected to evacuate the flood-battered Binghamton area Thursday, and some schools were closed in the surrounding area.
Emergency management officials in Broome County ordered additional evacuations early Thursday for Binghamton neighborhoods near where the Susquehanna and Chenango rivers converge. Mandatory evacuation orders were also issued for the neighboring villages. In all, some 10,000 residents in the county were under mandatory evacuation, officials said.
The Susquehanna closed off Interstate 88 and flooded parts of the city of Oneonta, N.Y., which is home to a state university. Tom Connelly was camping by the river Wednesday night when the water began rising.
"Within a half hour — less than a half hour — it really overflowed its banks and I really almost didn't have enough time to get out of there," Connelly said. "By the time I left the tent, the water was within 2 feet. ... I'm sure the tent is long gone."
Evacuations were ordered for about 170 homes along the Susquehanna in Harrisburg.
A flood watch was in effect through Thursday afternoon in soggy Vermont but officials on Thursday said that rain has caused only minor problems in the state. Parts of the state are still recovering from flooding from the remnants of Irene, which was a tropical storm by the time it swept over the area.
Two storm-related deaths were reported in Pennsylvania. Police in Derry Township said a man who was removing water from his basement was killed when the house's foundation collapsed, and a motorist trapped in a vehicle drowned early Thursday morning in Elizabeth Township, in Lancaster County.
In New York, Prattsville was cut off on Wednesday afternoon, its main roads covered with water as public works crews tried to dredge the creeks to alleviate the flooding. Trash bins stood in the mud-caked streets to collect debris left by Irene and the wreckage of houses destroyed by the earlier storm still dotted the area.
Heavy rain fell, and residents were ready to evacuate as the Schoharie Creek escaped its banks and smaller streams showed significant flooding. In nearby Middleburgh, dozens of residents were evacuated from temporary shelters set up in schools, many for the third time since Irene hit.
Lee formed just off the Louisiana coast late last week and gained strength as it lingered in the Gulf for a couple of days. It dumped more than a foot of rain in New Orleans and trudged across Mississippi and Alabama.
Tornadoes spawned by Lee damaged hundreds of homes, and flooding knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of people. Trees were uprooted and roads were flooded. Winds fanned wildfires in Louisiana and Texas, and the storm even kicked up tar balls on the Gulf Coast. At least six people have died in the South and Northeast.
The rainy remnants of Agnes devastated the Susquehanna River basin in 1972 after moving up the coast. At the time it was one of the most damaging hurricanes ever recorded despite being a relatively weak storm.
Meanwhile, in the open Atlantic, Hurricane Katia brought rough surf to the East Coast but was not expected to make landfall in the U.S. Tropical Storm Maria also formed Wednesday far out in the Atlantic, but it was too soon to tell if and where it might make landfall.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Chris Carola, Michael Hill and Rik Stevens in Albany, N.Y.; Jim Fitzgerald in White Plains, N.Y.; John Curran in Montpelier, Vt.; Genaro C. Armas in State College, Pa.
- Susquehanna River