AGNES 50 YEARS LATER Agnes' havoc shocked Army Corps. leader deployed to Sunbury

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Jun. 19—Lt. Col. John "Jack" Raffaele, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was the district engineer overseeing cleanup efforts in Sunbury and parts of the Susquehanna River Valley left devastated in the weeks and days after the remnants of Hurricane Agnes hit the region in June 1972.

Headquartered in Sunbury City Hall on Market Street and then later at another downtown building near the Hotel Edison, Raffaele's area of responsibility originally included Northumberland, Columbia and Montour counties. The counties of Cameron, Clinton, Lycoming, Sullivan, Union, Centre and Clearfield were added later. He oversaw a staff of nearly 30 people that consisted of officers, corps employees and civilian employees recruited from the local area.

Raffaele, a major when he came to Sunbury, turned 37 only weeks after he was stationed in the city. It was one of his only civil assignments. Raffaele is now 86 and lives in Pinehurst, N.C., with his wife, Beverly.

"I got called to do this with basically little to no experience," said Raffaele recently. "I knew construction and all that other stuff. It was the first time I did anything like that."

When Raffaele arrived in the Valley on June 28, 1972, "I couldn't believe what I was looking at," he said.

The Susquehanna Engineering District, established to direct flood recovery operations in the Susquehanna River basin, took over flood relief efforts from the Baltimore District. Removal of debris from streams, bridge repairs, and establishment of mobile home sites were included in the jurisdiction of the new district. Work on repairing dikes and levees remained under the jurisdiction of the Baltimore District, according to The Daily Item archives.

Raffaele recalls working on a historic covered bridge near Pillow, Dauphin County, that was lifted and washed away downstream.

He remembers another incident involving a bridge over Fishing Creek that had washed away on Route 487 about one mile west of Orangeville, Columbia County. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished construction of the new 180-foot-long, 260-ton "Bailey Bridge" on July 24 only to have it collapse. Driver Edward Houck, of Fredonia, N.Y., was operating a 28-ton tractor-trailer loaded with powdered milk and drove over it only two days later at 10 a.m. July 26, according to Daily Item archives.

The capacity was posted at 15 tons. The cost to the state for construction was $30,000, according to The Daily Item archives.

"Not 24 hours after we got it in, a truck went in and exceeded the weight," Raffaele said. "We lost our bridge and the truck wound up in the river. That took us four or five days to get him out, to get our bridge out. We never did get another bridge in after that."

In the Lewisburg area, Raffaele remembers mobile homes being found in the trees.

"That was kind of a sight," he said. "The water was so high. They were very damaged. The river just raised everything up and floated them one way or another. That was a great big problem."

The focus in larger towns was to bring sewage systems and water systems back online. Removing debris from the streets was also a large effort, he said.

"People were in dire, dire shape," he said.

Welcome

The Valley was receptive and welcoming of Raffaele and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"We were extremely well received," said Raffaele. "The town and merchants of the town were very, very good to us. They wouldn't even let us buy a meal when we went to restaurants. We were trying to find restaurants where people wouldn't buy our meals. The people were so nice."

A local barber gave him passes to the golf course at the Susquehanna Country Club in Selinsgrove. A Coal Region mayor took him on a tour of a coal mine.

"It was little things like that," said Raffaele. "We had breakfast every morning at a coffee shop and people were nice to us. We felt good about doing it. It wasn't just another assignment. It felt like we were doing something good for the people."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the construction of Sunbury's Works Progress Administration flood wall in 1951 after five years of construction and $6.6 million. It was designed to act as a protective buffer for the main city flood wall to reduce soil infiltration and erosion into the river. It became a priority after the 1936 flood.

The existing flood control system that protects 147 acres of the City of Sunbury is a complex combination of 2.4 miles of flood wall, 2.6 miles of earthen levees and six pumping stations, drainage structures, closure structures and early warning systems that work together to provide protection from Shamokin Creek and the Susquehanna River.

Sunbury was "very, very fortunate," said Raffaele. In 1972, "That wall held and it saved Sunbury."

The flood wall was appreciated, Raffaele said.

"It did work," he said. "People put all kinds of signs up thanking the wall, God bless the wall, and everything."

'Rewarding assignment'

Raffaele was transferred back to Fort Belvoir, Va., on Aug. 25, 1972, and would soon be promoted to lieutenant colonel. Before departing the area, Raffaele participated in ceremonies in Danville marking the completion of the Montour County mobile home site.

Raffaele was quoted in the Aug. 28, 1972, edition of The Daily Item about his experience in Sunbury: "This was a challenging and rewarding assignment. We did the best we could under difficult circumstances." He also lauded the cooperation of city and borough officials, township supervisors and contractors.

Raffaele would return to combat engineering and would spend a few years working under the Army Corps and NATO with the Italian army in Italy. Raffaele retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1982 after 24 years of active service. He accepted a position with an insurance company as the vice president for administration and property management and later retired in 1995.

His attitude toward his time spent in the Valley remains positive.

"It is one of the highlights of my career," said Raffaele. "It was an opportunity to serve the community and help out. It was one thing I always talked about."