Agnes Flood of 1972's long-lasting emotional, ecological and economic impacts still felt after 50 years
When moving to Lewisburg in 2013, Bucknell University Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Sciences Andrew Stuhl noticed indications of the historical flooding of Hurricane Agnes which happened decades before.
“It was hard to miss all the historical markers that showed flood levels and mentioned lives lost in the flooding,” he said. “As I talked to people in the community to get to know them, they would mention Agnes in casual conversation, talking about something that happened to them right after the flood, or how things in town looked completely different before the flood.”
Stuhl had earned his PhD in environmental history and soon was at the center of a massive study looking at Agnes’ impacts on the region 50 years after the June 1972 event.
Tropical Storm Agnes, which hit the Susquehanna Valley in late June 1972, remains the flood of record in dozens of locations throughout our watershed. It was known as the costliest natural flood in US history, according to Stuhl, taking more than 125 lives and causing more than $3 billion (in 1972 money) in damage across the Mid-Atlantic – the bulk of that was in Pennsylvania and the bulk of our statewide damage was felt in the Susquehanna Valley.
“This would be why people are still talking about this event 50 years later – because it is our worst natural disaster,” Stuhl said. “It is to the credit of those who lived through it who maintained the history of the storm as a benchmark, as a warning and a cautionary tale of what it is like to live with rivers.”
Flooding is a natural event, and we should expect that when we live along river systems, and high-water inundation events like Agnes can cause a lot of damage to the people and the environment.
“When Agnes moved up the East Coast, it hit a cold front in Pennsylvania and just stalled,” Stuhl said. “It dropped a tremendous amount of rain on the North and West branches of the Susquehanna.”
According to Stuhl, totals of rainfall varied in river towns across our region between 10 to 18 inches in a two-day period, and that was on top of what was a wet spring where everything was already saturated.
“When you look at some of the river crests on gauges up and down the North and West branches, the biggest event easily is Agnes. Milton had a crest of 35.1 feet – the river was up against and splashing onto the railroad bridge that spans the river in town. There are tons of pictures out there that can help people visualize just how much water was flowing down our streams into the Susquehanna. It was this water that caused damage to people’s homes and livelihoods, to neighborhoods and communities.”
Stuhl’s research included interviewing as many people as possible about their experiences with the flood.
“We conducted close to 50 interviews, transcribed them and dumped all the words and descriptions into a computer program that counts the words, and there is an algorithm that allows us to assign a meaning to different phrases,” he said. “So, let’s say I was interviewing you and you said it was a very hard topic to talk about because your dad lost his store in Agnes. The waters came in and destroyed inventory, warped the floods and your family didn’t have the money to build back from that. We could go into that program and highlight the phrase ‘lost my store’ we could say this means grief or economic loss or sadness.”
The program allowed Stuhl and his team to track the sort of feelings people had about the storm and the damage it caused. From all the interviews, the most emotional parts lined up with when people would go back into their homes or businesses to clean up, and Stuhl found they felt two things very strongly.
“The first was the sense of loss – that they lost things that they could never replace. It wasn’t the material possessions, but the sentimental things like photo albums and dad’s military uniform – things that meant so much and yet seemed to be taken away in an instant,” he said.
Stuhl found that at the same time people were coping with this sense of loss and vulnerability, they also greatly valued the feeling of community and togetherness.
“In that moment when they had to go back into their homes and scoop out mud from their first floor and pick through things in a debris pile, their neighbors are coming over to feed them. Their neighbors are coming over and helping them scoop out the mud,” Stuhl said. “Total strangers are stopping by to ask if they need a hand, and they remember that. These were such powerful feelings and emotions for so many that went through this disaster.”
When rain hits the ground, it typically will move any unsecured sediment and other pollutants toward streams and eventually rivers. That process was made worse due to changing ways of living in the 1950s and 60s, according to Stuhl, as there was a massive transition from people living in cities to more suburban areas or townships adjacent to more urbanized regions.
“They moved into areas that were once wetlands and floodplains and put in roads and buildings and tennis courts – all things that will eventually push more rainwater into our streams and river,” he said. “At the same time, there as a major chemical revolution in the agricultural industry. Farmer at that time were applying more pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers than ever – and Agnes pushes all of that into our waterways all at once, so we have an incredible impact from sediment and pollution from the storm.”
This impact was most visible in the Chesapeake Bay, as it receives the total flow of the Susquehanna River.
“Flood water, which is freshwater, made its way to the bay, which is a mixture of freshwater and saltwater resources, and the massive amount of flood water from Agnes drastically lowered the salinity of the Chesapeake to levels never previously recorded,” said Stuhl. “That proves fatal for a number of benthic organisms that rely on saltwater to live.”
Famously, the softshell clam and oyster industries were decimated by the freshwater flow, as well as the pollution and sedimentation that came with it. According to Stuhl, some scientists feel those industries have never really fully recovered from the impacts to this day.
Sediment impacts all forms of aquatic life across the Susquehanna’s system because so much of the mud and sand was moved by the storm into the waterways.
“You might have seen aerial photo of flood events in more recent times and this big plume of sediment in the Chesapeake Bay that covers all the creatures and underwater grasses,” Stuhl said. “Then the bacteria breaking down organic matter in the mud trapped under it changes the water chemistry of our streams, river and bay as oxygen is pulled out from that decomposition process.”
Another major ecological impact of the storm involved its timing.
“This tropical storm came very early in the season. We typically see them in August or September, but June is a very fragile time in the life cycle of many of our aquatic organisms,” Stuhl said. “There was sediment covering fish eggs and grasses and underwater habitats at a time where things were most fragile.”
People refer to the Agnes flooding as a 100-year or even a 500-year event, but Stuhl suggests we shouldn’t think about floods that way because it limits how we understand the impacts.
“Scientists are getting a better idea of how one flood could change so many things for generations – just two or three days of rain has completely changed the way that people understand impacts and we still may not completely see the big picture of what went on then and how we are still impacted,” he said.
According to Stuhl, we can’t overestimate the impact Agnes had on businesses on all levels – from big retailers to small businesses to individual property owners, renters and farmers.
“Again, there was $3 billion in damage and $2 billion of that was in PA and the bulk of that was in our river basin. In towns like Danville, Riverside, Milton and Bloomsburg, there was 10s of million of dollars of damage,” Stuhl said. “This flood took away homes, it took away businesses and people’s livelihoods.”
Part of the devastation, he added, is due to centuries of choosing to live in floodplains across our region.
“It is where industry is. The river provides a source of transportation. Logging sustained communities once up a time and we’ve gotten to a place where the river is at the center of everything we do in one way or another,” Stuhl said.
Before Agnes, the biggest flood of record was in 1936, which led to the building of flood walls and levees in the Wyoming Valley region in the 1940s.
“People had this mentality that when flood waters would come up again, the walls would protect them,” said Stuhl. “However, in Agnes, much damage happened behind the flood walls. In Wilkes-Barre, which had a levee, it failed and that was why there was so much damage there. The flood walls gave people a sense of security that they could develop behind those walls, but they didn’t understand the risk from such a major flood event like Agnes.”
In an effort to change this trend, the government required – after Agnes – that to be eligible for relief funds, people and groups had to show in their applications that they were mindfully reducing the intensity of developing in the floodplain, that any structures that remain in those areas would be flood-proofed and that you would get zoning ordinances to basically restrict development along waterways.
“This is the dawn of floodplain zoning ordinances as well as flood insurance, which rolled out in mass after Agnes,” said Stuhl. “All of this underscored another major social and economic change for those with a home in the floodplain is the changing relationship between us and the river and the sense of risk.”
The combination of a wet spring and Agnes’ unprecedented rains had a massive impact on regional farmers, as well, according to Stuhl.
“Agnes wiped out many crops such as hay and grain, as well as farm equipment and barns and other things that were destroyed. Livestock was lost and fences were broken,” he said. “The Army Corps of Engineers estimated $350 million in damages to agriculture areas in the Valley.”
The rain carved gullies and eroded soil to make certain lands untillable for years afterward.
“Farmers in the mid to late 1970s had a restricted number of lands to plant because of Agnes. Fields were filled with residual debris,” said Stuhl. “Government relief packages unfortunately were more focused on big industry and smaller business owners. I still wonder how this all likely led to farmers working more together in co-op type situations.”
Other ripple effects
The flooding from Agnes led to a relocation of people who still live in the Valley, but decided to move out of boroughs away from the river.
“It perpetuates the trends of transition of people into suburbs, but also has led to expanded concerns over impervious surfaces (such as parking lots and new roads) and what they may mean for stormwater issues,” Stuhl said. “After Agnes, people chose to live on higher ground. In Milton, for example, more than 1,000 people moved to Turbot and West Chillisquaque townships. There was definitely a ripple effect.”
Another interesting aspect of the flood, according to Stuhl, involves the dilemma of whether or not to utilize flood walls.
“There are a couple of famous photos you might have seen with water right up to the top of the Sunbury flood wall and splashing over it. Fortunately, the flood wall largely held, Sunbury was protected and had very little damage compared to nearby towns,” he said, adding that while it is a common way to tell the story of the Agnes flood, it can cause some tension.
“Do we build flood walls or not? Are they good for us or not. These are really tricky situations if we take seriously the concept of a watershed,” he said. “The more and more we build flood walls upstream of us in the confluence region, the more and more water is sent downstream. The very good impulse to protect what we love goes headlong into the reality that if you build a flood wall in your town, you are going to send more water to another.”
Lessons to learn
The driving factor for Stuhl in his work to better understand the long-ranging impacts of Agnes is that we inevitably will be going to experience more intense rain events in our future.
“Our best scientists tell us that we have already observed this trend over the past 70 years and it will only continue to intensify – having more frequent rain events in Pennsylvania that will be part of wetter and wilder weather,” he said. “What can we learn from this really transformative Agnes event so we can deal with these changes in the future?
“When the next flood event comes, if we are simply reacting by evacuating and scrambling on the way out to grab the things that mean the most to us, it is too late.”
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.