Pa. Orders 200,000 To Evacuate

The swollen Susquehanna River flows under the Market Street bridge, Wednesday, June 28, 2006, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (AP Photo/The Times-Leader, Aimee Dilger)
AP/The Times-Leader, Aimee Dilger
Up to 200,000 people in the Wilkes-Barre area were ordered to evacuate their homes Wednesday because of rising water on the Susquehanna River, swelled by a record-breaking deluge that had killed at least 12 people across the Northeast.

Thousands more were ordered to leave their homes in New Jersey, New York and Maryland. Rescue helicopters plucked residents from rooftops as rivers and streams surged over their banks, washed out roads and bridges, and cut off villages in some of the worst flooding in the region in decades.

Wilkes-Barre, a northeastern Pennsylvania city that was devastated by deadly flooding in 1972 from the remnants of Hurricane Agnes, is protected by levees, and officials said the Susquehanna was expected to crest just a few feet from the tops of the 41-foot floodwalls.

But Luzerne County Commissioner Todd Vonderheid said officials were worried about the effects of water pressing against the levees for 48 hours. The floodwalls were completed just three years ago.

"It is honestly precautionary," Vonderheid said. "We have great faith the levees are going to hold."

An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people in the county of about 351,000 were told to get out by nightfall. The evacuation order applied to much of Wilkes-Barre and several outlying towns, all of them flooded by Agnes more than three decades ago.

CBS News national correspondent Byron Pitts reports that in neighborhood after neighborhood, the scene was the same — families packing what they could, as fast as they could.

Laura Lockman, 42, of Wilkes-Barre packed a car and planned to clear out along with her husband, three kids and a puppy named Pebbles. They were not ordered to evacuate their brick home, a half-mile from the Susquehanna, but were going to nearby Scranton anyway for the children's safety. Their home was inundated in 1972, when water reached the second floor.

"I just want to get out of here. I just want to be safe, that's all," she said.

A dozen helicopters from the Pennsylvania National Guard, the state police and the Coast Guard were sent on search-and-rescue missions, plucking stranded residents from rooftops in Bloomsburg, Sayre and New Milford. Hundreds of National Guardsmen prepared to distribute ice, water and meals ready to eat.

Flooding closed many roads in the Philadelphia area, including the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

"We lost just about everything — the cars, the clothes, even the baby's crib," said James Adams, who evacuated his family's home near Binghamton, N.Y., after watching their shed float away and their cars get submerged. "I'm not sure what we are going to do."

Elsewhere in the Binghamton area, an entire house floated down the Susquehanna.

The soaking weather was produced by a low-pressure system that has been stalled just offshore since the weekend and pumped moist tropical air northward along the East Coast. A record 4.05 inches of rain fell Tuesday at Binghamton. During the weekend, the same system drenched the Washington and Baltimore region with more than a foot of rain.