'Agnes baby' JoAnn Smith turns 50 today

·4 min read

Jun. 23—Fifty years ago, on June 22, Joyce Stritzinger was in Wilkes-Barre General Hospital preparing to give birth to her daughter, JoAnn.

In that instance, there wasn't much else to focus on for Joyce. But outside the hospital and all around the Wyoming Valley, citizens braced for a much different arrival — the arrival of Agnes.

JoAnn Smith, fifty years later, looked back at the circumstances surrounding her birth, along with her mother, in an interview this week with the Times Leader.

"It didn't really hit me until I was 10 years old, and a picture of my mother and I ran in your paper," Smith said, referencing a photo of them that appeared in the Times Leader's 1982 "After Agnes" publication marking the 10 year anniversary of the flooding.

"It sort of hit home after that ... I was in awe of the destruction."

Smith was born at 12:48 a.m. on the morning of June 23, as Agnes had just begun pouring rain down onto the city. While expectant mothers at Nesbitt Hospital in Kingston had to be evacuated to a makeshift hospital set up at College Misericordia, Wilkes-Barre General Hospital was set high enough that it stayed dry during the flooding.

As such, Stritzinger wasn't even aware of what was happening outside while she was in the hospital, having gone in on June 22 and being discharged on June 26.

"It was just rain, that's all it was when I went in," Stritzinger said. "I didn't even realize what was happening."

The family home, on Prospect Street in Wilkes-Barre, was also spared from destruction, though the family were in need of necessities for the new baby that were in scarce supply after Agnes.

Others weren't so fortunate, losing loved ones, homes, cars and treasured possessions.

"There was so much mud everywhere," Stritzinger said of the scene after she was discharged. "And so much damage."

For JoAnn, her memories of Agnes stem from what she's seen and heard in the years after she was old enough to process the storm: plenty of destruction, but also plenty of selflessness and togetherness from the community.

"Everyone came together, and everyone made it through," Smith said. "The significance of it [Agnes] came as I got older."

Smith currently lives in Nanticoke with her husband, while Stritzinger still lives in Wilkes-Barre, now on Welles Street.

For JoAnn, a taste of what residents of the area had to deal with in 1972 came almost forty years later in 2011, when Tropical Storm Lee brought the Susquehanna River to a record height that eclipsed Agnes levels, and flooded a number of neighborhoods up and down the river.

"I took my sister and her friend in [in 2011], they needed a place to stay," Smith said. "That helped me understand what people had to go through in Agnes ... I thought a lot about the homeless, where they would go."

Both mother and daughter assisted in the cleanup after the 2011 flood, and for Joyce, the idea of another major event like that pops up every so often, when the forecasts look particulaly bleak.

"Now, where I live, I'm in the lowlands," Stritzinger said. "If we got flooded today, I would have to be evacuated."

Still, for the most part, Stritzinger was spared the worst of Agnes's fury and, 50 years, later, she doesn't think too much about the 1972 flood.

"It doesn't even bother me," she said.

But for JoAnn, even though she couldn't possibly have any firsthand memories of Agnes as a newborn, she looks back at the disaster through photos, through stories and through the changes it brought to Wilkes-Barre.

"My husband is older than me, he remembers what Public Square looked like before the flood," she said. "I didn't have any idea, but it was completely reshaped."

Though Smith did endure some light teasing from the kids at school growing up about her status as the very first "Agnes baby," she looks back at her unique place in Wyoming Valley lore with a sense of pride, especially when she looks at the way the community bounced back from the flood.

"It makes me proud to be from the area," Smith said.

She also looks at her birth, in the wee hours of the morning when Agnes came to town, fondly for the connection it has forever forged with her mother.

"I'll always be a part of the Agnes story, though I guess I would rather be associated with a good memory," she joked.

"But it all comes full circle, and our experience is something that my mother and I will always share together."