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Under my hat: A flood can last a lifetime

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    In Port Carbon, some residents are struggling to start anew, having lost belongings and their security to the roaring waters of Mill Creek. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

Published August 19. 2018 12:47PM

It was just a few hours after the flooding.

The water had just subsided and I drove 14 miles to Port Carbon.

I felt compelled to go there and deliver drinking water and talk to folks.

In so many ways, the flash flood took me back to a 1972 visit to Wilkes-Barre and Kingston.

Naturally, the destruction in Port Carbon isn’t as widespread as what took place in the Wyoming Valley. But it impacts residents just the same.

I saw it firsthand in Wilkes-Barre. In fact, it was seared into my memory because I moved there in the years following the disaster. I accepted a job offer in the heart of downtown and relocated to Kingston while the valley was still recovering.

Kingston and Wilkes-Barre are essentially one big community divided by the mighty Susquehanna River.

I rented a first-floor apartment in a flood house, a stone’s throw from the dike. The massive dike protected the city from the raging Susquehanna up to perhaps 28 feet high. Problem was, the river rose to 41 feet and the dike broke.

I took the apartment even after the landlord described what happened.

“We had a few inches of water — in the attic.”

“You’ve got to be kidding!”

“No,” he said. “All of the houses in this neighborhood were entirely submerged. Some were torn down. Others repaired or rebuilt.”

It was a flood of biblical proportions. But, when it comes to impact, all floods are of biblical proportion.

In Wilkes-Barre, they say about 13 people lost their lives due to Hurricane Agnes. But that figure doesn’t include countless suicides. Many returned and saw what was left of their lives and simply couldn’t cope.

Some places never recovered. Visual reminders stood for a long, long time.

One popular pizza place on Wyoming Avenue remained closed and filled with flood mud for years.

Those thoughts ran through my mind last week when I walked around Port Carbon.

A few homeowners had begun to throw out belongings. But most couldn’t do it yet because they were waiting for the local fire company to pump out the basement and, in some cases, first floor.

Many sat on front porches, dazed. One woman cried in despair.

Another said he had insurance that might cover some of the damage.

“This has happened a few times in the past,” he said. His old Victorian borders Mill Creek, which was still roaring loudly.

“Yesterday the water rose to the seat level of my Corvette,” said the homeowner, pointing toward his garage. “I couldn’t move it because it has no battery.”

The disaster crippled lives and lifestyles.

More than 200 homes were flooded. Many homeowners are over 60 and live on Social Security. They can’t afford new furnaces, new furniture.

On this day, even food was a struggle.

Residents couldn’t fix a meal because there was no electricity.

They couldn’t walk the streets because everything was covered with toxic mud.

If they were lucky enough to own a charged cellphone, they called friends or relatives.

A teenager trudged through the muck carrying quarts of bleach.

People rooted through dark cupboards, trying to find buckets, cleaners and disinfectants. At many houses, doors and windows were wide open for ventilation.

The air was filled with sour smells of mold, mud and gasoline, along with the hum of gas-powered generators and pumps.

In real estate, they say location, location, location. And it’s true. We all enjoy a scenic view, a babbling brook, the allure of fishing and fresh water.

But a creek can be a curse. A river can leave us in ruins.

Truth is, it can be difficult to live next to a waterway in Pennsylvania. Too unpredictable. Too daring. Too much a gamble.

Here we are in August and most folks are getting the kids ready for another school year.

They’re thinking about sports and band practice, school haircuts, new outfits, shoes and socks.

But not in Port Carbon. Those who live along Mill Creek are trying to figure out how to put their lives back together.

Eventually they’ll move forward like everyone else. Yes, they’ll heal. But one thing is certain, they’ll never forget Monday, Aug. 13. Never. The scars will never go away. A flood can last a lifetime.

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