Flood Evacuees: Better Safe Than Sorry

High water from the Susquehanna River laps against stairs that are part of the levee as workers look out from the Market Street Bridge, Thursday morning, June 29, 2006, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Up to 200,000 people in the Wilkes-Barre area were ordered to leave their homes Wednesday because of rising water on the Susquehanna River. The Susquehanna crested at just over 34 feet and the levee held. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

As they returned to undamaged homes Thursday, many people who had evacuated the day before said they didn't mind that the inconvenience turned out to be unnecessary.

Some said the destructive power unleashed when Hurricane Katrina breached levees in New Orleans last year had convinced them that it's better to be safe than sorry.

Others recalled the destruction in their own city more than 30 years ago when the remnants of Hurricane Agnes dumped so much water into the Susquehanna River that it burst through Wilkes-Barre's flood defenses and devastated the city — much as Katrina did New Orleans.

In Easton, Pa., residents were not as lucky, but, as CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts reports, many feel just as grateful.

As the Delaware River crested 15 feet above flood level, all anyone could do was watch, Pitts reports. Waters flooded downtown, including a number of businesses. But even in Easton, some residents are counting their blessings.

"It could be worse," Randi Kaplan, whose basement is flooded, told Pitts. "I think of those people whose homes were completely destroyed."

On Wednesday night, emergency managers in Wilkes-Barre ordered an evacuation of the city and other areas protected by dikes and floodwalls recently upgraded by the Army Corps of Engineers, the same federal agency that built the levees in New Orleans. Though officials said they did not expect the river to rise above the 41-foot height of the new barriers, they chose caution.

"I think it was the right decision," said attorney Carl Frank, as he surveyed the river's turbid waters from the top of the city's protective levees Thursday morning.

Frank recalled working in a crew that was desperately piling sandbags on the Susquehanna's banks during Hurricane Agnes in 1972 and running for his life as the bags, and the earth underneath them, suddenly washed away.

Jonathan McClendon, who moved to Wilkes-Barre from Philadelphia five days ago, said he thought of Katrina when the order to evacuate came, and decided not to take any chances. He went to a shelter with his girlfriend and 2-year-old son, only to find his things high and dry when he returned to his new home Thursday morning.

No matter. "If we would have stayed, we would have flooded," he figured.

Speaking Thursday in Harrisburg, Gov. Ed Rendell praised the order to evacuate up to 200,000 people. He, too, invoked Katrina, saying Wilkes-Barre "could have had a New Orleans-type situation."

Things went well at an evacuation center in GAR Memorial High School, where 275 people spent the night, said Hank Rodolski, the director of the city health department.

"I think we all have visions of Katrina in the back of our minds," Rodolski said as he guided senior citizens onto the school bus that would take them back to their apartments and nursing homes.

But those visions never materialized.

On Wilkes-Barre's Carlisle Street, where a tributary of the Susquehanna perennially washes muddy water into residents' basements, some people scoffed at the evacuation.

"They were worried because the dikes hadn't been tested," said lifelong resident Gary Mutchler, 50. "I've seen that river in worse shape than it was yesterday."

Local officials estimate at least 50,000 people heeded the order to leave. Several residents said they simply ignored the order because they feared looting.
  • Lloyd Vries

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