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Sunday, September 18th 2011

1:11 PM

September Floods - Part II (or, ignorance is bliss)

A few more thoughts on the September floods, the ones caused by rain from Lee; the ones that brought flooding to communities all along the north branch and the west branch of the Susquehanna River; the ones that would have wiped out much of Wilkes-Barre, Kingston and Forty Fort had it not been for a levee that was higher than generally known.

To recap: The levee at Wilkes-Barre is widely known to protect up to 41', which is just slightly higher than the level the river reached during the Agnes flood of 1972. In reality, there are a few extra feet on top of that, so the levee really offers protection up to 44'.

During Lee, the original projected crest of 30' at Wilkes-Barre suddenly jumped to a projected crest of 38'. After that, it rose in smaller increments, settling at a projected crest of 40.9' and prompting the evacuation of areas affected by Agnes.

On the evening of Thursday, September 8, the river level at W-B seemed to level off at approx. 38.5'. Officials, however, held off on declaring that the river had crested. Early Friday morning, they finally announced a crest of 38.8'.

Later that afternoon, however, they announced that that initial crest figure was inaccurate. The river at W-B actually crested, they said, at 42.66', a figure higher than Agnes. So, Lee was now a storm of historic proportions.

Why the misinformation? At first, the officials said that the river gauge had malfunctioned due to all the water pressure. Only later did they learn - along with the rest of us - that the gauge worked properly, but it just wasn't capable of measuring anything much beyond 38'. The plan now is to replace that gauge with one that will read up to 48 or 49'. God help us if we ever have a flood where the water gets THAT high.

Let's leave aside the question of why no one in authority in Luzerne County seemed to know that the gauge wouldn't measure a river level much higher than 38'. Installing a gauge like that in an area where the water has already risen well above that level once before doesn't seem to make much sense. But, that's not the issue I want to address right now.

Rather, I want to know what would have happened if there HAD been a river gauge capable of higher readings. What would have happened HAD people in Luzerne County (and, I suppose, in other communities) realized just how high the river was? What if they HAD known from the beginning that this was going to be worse than Agnes?

As it was, with people believing that 40.9' was as high as the river would get, evacuations seemed to go mainly without incident (other than the traffic jams you might expect). Maybe most people, like me, believed the river would actually crest lower than that 40.9' projection. Anyway, I didn't get a sense of widespread panic, at least not from people in communities protected by the levee.

But, what if the river gauge had been capable of accurately measuring river levels? When people checked the river levels on the web, they would have seen a crest well above projections, rather than one that seemed to level off below projections. Under that scenario, what would have happened? Would people have tried to rush home to save more of their possessions? Would more people have tried to leave, perhaps going on to roads that would suddenly be swamped by rising water? Would there have been general panic and civil unrest?

I don't know. But, with a new river gauge on the way, if something like Lee (or worse) ever comes along, I guess we'll find out. 
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