BLOOMSBURG, Pa. — As the Susquehanna River and its tributaries in Pennsylvania and New York receded Saturday from some of the highest floodwaters ever seen, tens of thousands of people forced from their homes in the already-soggy Northeast were left to imagine the devastation that awaited them.
About 135 water and sewage plants in Pennsylvania were flooded, causing sewage to spill into streams and rivers. Swirling brown waters carried off at least 10 houses in the state and filled other homes to their rooftops, forcing rescues by boat and helicopter and putting severe strain on the floodwalls that protect some towns.
Farther south, in waterlogged northern Virginia, the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee on the heels of Hurricane Irene a week and a half earlier closed roads, schools and a commuter rail line, and a retaining wall was brought down near a townhome complex, causing evacuations.
In the flood-prone Huntington neighborhood near Alexandria, Saul Romero borrowed a plastic storage bin to float his 2-year-old daughter up the street to dry land.
“I was just worried for my daughter,” he said, as he and others used hoses to wash inches of slimy mud off their sidewalks.
In Maryland, the Susquehanna reached a 15-year high of 32.4 feet Friday at the Conowingo Dam and was expected to remain near that level into the night, the National Weather Service said. Dam gates were opened to relieve pressure on the river.
At least 15 deaths have been blamed on Lee and its aftermath: seven in Pennsylvania, three in Virginia, one in Maryland, and four others killed when it came ashore on the Gulf Coast last week. President Barack Obama declared states of emergency in Pennsylvania and New York, opening the way for federal aid.
The central Pennsylvania town of Bloomsburg endured its worst flood in more than a century as the Susquehanna inundated hundreds of homes, destroying some of them. The high water prevented fire crews from reaching blazes in a high school maintenance shed and the town’s recycling center.
The river crested at nearly 42.7 feet Thursday night in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. — beyond the design capacity of the region’s levee system and higher than the record set during catastrophic Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Officials said the levees keeping back the Susquehanna were under “extreme stress” but holding, and crews scrambled to shore up weak points.
Early Saturday, the water level was around 36 feet in the city and expected to drop to less than 28 feet by day’s end. About 70,000 residents in communities in and near Wilkes-Barre along the Susquehanna remained under a mandatory evacuation.
Gov. Corbett toured the region by helicopter and scolded residents who scaled the weakened levees or walked across partially flooded bridges to get a closer look at the river.
“This is still a dangerous time, even though it’s nice and sunny out,” he cautioned. “”There were many people out on the street oblivious to the danger they were in.”
In Middletown, in central Pennsylvania, three people were arrested Friday on charges they used a boat to steal items they found floating along flooded streets. Police Chief Keith Reismiller told The Patriot-News of Harrisburg that the suspects’ haul included propane tanks and new vehicle tires.
As the northernmost reaches of the Susquehanna began retreating, the first of about 20,000 evacuees in the city and suburbs of Binghamton, N.Y., returned to their homes to survey the damage from what the mayor called the worst flood in more than 60 years.
Robert Smith made it back home around noon. Mud and debris covered the pavement, and water still blocked streets closest to the river. But he said he felt inspired by the time he spent in a shelter. When a woman collapsed on the floor there, he said, strangers rushed to tend to her.
“Everybody was helping each other out, just total strangers,” he said. “You’ve never seen it before in your life.”
In West Pittston, which is upriver from Wilkes-Barre and is not protected by levees, 300 to 325 homes were flooded — a tough blow in a community of only about 5,000 residents. National Guardsmen used a boat Friday to rescue 11 people, including two children, trapped on the second floor of a house.
Floodwaters covered street after street, inundating some homes to the roof. One homeowner who got 18 inches in his basement during Agnes was flooded with eight feet of dirty river water this time around.
Rescuers in Wyoming County, upriver from Wilkes-Barre, pulled more than a dozen people from their stranded cars and got a family of three into a boat just before their home was swept into the Susquehanna.
Commuters confronted scores of road closures and a shutdown of the Virginia Railway Express. The railroad, which serves suburbs south and east of Washington, said parts of both lines were under water and the track bed was washed out in at least one spot.
A four-tiered 50-foot retaining wall partially gave way behind a townhome complex in Prince William County, Va., forcing some evacuations, county spokesman Jason Grant said.
Near Alexandria, Cameron Run surged from its banks and covered some streets with eight feet of water even as people were preparing to move their cars. Homes in the neighborhood are on hills above street level.
“It came really quickly,” Betsy Thompson said.
Eric Bottary said it was eerie watching the water rise from a basement window: “It looks like a submarine because it’s submerged in water.”
Rubinkam reported from Wilkes-Barre and West Pittston. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Michael Hill and Michael Gormley in Binghamton; Chris Carola in Albany, N.Y.; David Dishneau in Hagerstown, Md.; Alex Dominguez in Port Deposit, Md.; and Matthew Barakat in Vienna, Va.