The Great Flood of 1972, Wilkes-Barre, PA is Dealt a Powerful Blow

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Let me start with a little background to let you know my connection to the hard hit part of the city.  I’m from the hill, so my mother’s home was not directly in the path of the destruction.  However, during the time between my last great summer with the pool gang and marrying my first wife in April 1969, I spent a great deal of time in the Lee Park and Barney Street area.  My girlfriend, and soon to be wife, lived on Lee Park Avenue.  Her friends, who became my friends, lived in the blocks around that area and we got married in St. Aloysius Church.

Yesterday I described how Agnes set Wilkes-Barre up for the toughest days of its history.  Today I will add what little I know about the actual event.  I’m going to need help here.  If you have memories of those days please share them here in the comments.  That will put the entire story in one place.

My family and I were in Alexandria.  We knew it was going to be bad for our hometown and we were already planning to return to be with family and friends and to help out in whatever way we could.

The rain totals were mounting, eight, ten, twelve, fourteen inches and more.  The Susquehanna River was becoming in, my pool gang days, would have been called a blivit.  As many of you know a blivit, crudely put, is ten pounds of sh** in a five pound bag.  That aptly described the river at that time.  Many brave souls went to the river to shore up the dyke.   Some set up a second line of defense putting up barriers by the courthouse.


This picture is from an Accuweather page and it comes from “The Great Flood of 1972” by Paul Warnagris.  As you can see the hard work and brave effort of the people was to no avail.

My brother, Tony, told me of the fight at the dyke.  He was down there in the rain, and dark, hoisting sandbags.  He said he remembered when the air raid sirens began to wale giving the signal that the dyke was collapsing.  He said it was the eeriest feeling, in the dark and the rain with the sirens blaring out their warning.

The water rushed into the Wilkes-Barre and the towns of the Wyoming Valley with tremendous force.  The power of the river shocked me as the morning light brought pictures of the flooding.  The river drove the nine feet and more of water into homes, business, and anything else in its way.


This is an example of what the morning light brought.  There are many many more pictures at the two web sites below.

This is where I need help.  My father-in-law, at the time, was displaced.  He lost much of what he had when the double-block that he lived in was flooded.  I believe he got out ahead of the water but he never talked about it.  He passed away about a year or so later so I never knew the details.  I know a lot was lost.  I hope people will tell their stories of these days.

I would like to thank my brother, Anthony Maida, Dyanne Dulmas, Frank Eyerman, Joan Helinski Shoemaker, Tish Price, and Ron Kane for filling in some details of those days.  Tish wrote about manning the switchboard for civil defense and how it had to be moved from the courthouse to higher ground at a school district building.  Joan said when the flood waters were rushing into the city, she was having her baby.  Thank Goodness the hospital was on higher ground.

Dyanne pointed me back to my brother reminding me of just how involved he was with the effort at the dyke and the work that followed.  Tony, Frank, and Ron put together a sad picture of maybe the only fatality directly related to the flood waters.  Frank told of working on River Street on the dyke when the water came over.  He said a young man was washed away and, in a sad and eerie twist, he ended up in the yard of his girlfriend.  Tony added that the young man actually worked right in my old neighborhood at the gas station at Parrish and Hazel.  Ron added that he believed the man graduated with the class of 1970 of Meyers High School, two years after I graduated.

When the water receded the Wyoming Valley was faced with the huge task of putting their world back together.  There were terrible and some oddly funny images for people to witness like a washing machine hanging from the telephone wires, and the dreadful and heart breaking scene below.


This was a cemetery in Forty-Fort.  Caskets were torn out of the ground and tossed all over the area.  My heart went out to the people who had to recover friends and loved ones.  I can’t imagine the pain some of them must have felt.

Please make this a real story and fill in the account of these days in the comments.  Tomorrow I will talk about my experience coming back home just a few days after the flood.  I will also talk about why the city was never the same to me again.


Pete is a retired software developer, a writer, and a martial arts instructor. He lives in Maryland with his wife Cathy and they are enjoying their retirement. Pete is the author of four novels, "The Teacher", 500 Years from Home", and "The Long Journey Home" are available at; and "Pioneers" in available at the Kindle Book Store.

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Posted in Flood of 1972, Historic Events, Memories, Weather, Wilkes-Barre
15 comments on “The Great Flood of 1972, Wilkes-Barre, PA is Dealt a Powerful Blow
  1. Lisa Davis-Van Why says:

    June 23rd 1972, Pete I just finished my freshman year in high school. We lived in Plymouth on Ferry St. At the time and there was work being done on the dike at the end of our street. When the dike DID break there was only HALF a dike holding the water back. On the side of the street where we lived the houses were built up houses were higher up from the road, on the other side of the street the houses were street level. The houses on street level were totally inundated with water first and second floors flooded. Unbelievable! The same thing happened to the house my grandparents used to live in totally underwater first and second floors. Their street was Railroad St. Right around the corner from our house. Our house (which by the way my father had just finished remodeling). Had water on the first floor. I mean a few feet not just a little bit. God Bless the Salvation Army because when it came time to clean up they were on those formerly flooded streets with their food truck handing out cold sandwich lunches and soft drinks EVERY DAY! They also gave people bread to take home (or to whatever place they called home at the time) so their family could eat. My father had stayed at our house as long as he could putting our belongings up as high as he could get them inside our house (thank god the second floor was high enough) for us. He had to leave In a row boat, he got out just in time up the hill he went, to his parents house (which is where we we’re staying) up off of Shawnee Ave. well above the flood zone. That was MY summer of 1972 Agnes Flood experience, one’s ENOUGH for me thank you! By the way (we) the people who were flooded coined a new phrase: “FLOOD MUD”. IT has a distinct smell. I say HAS because from time to time you can still smell it, especially in some money and houses to this day. It has a smell all its own those of us who’ve had the pleasure to experience this odor will never forget it.

    • petejoem says:

      Lisa, thank you so much for your story. I had no idea what was going on on the west side. It must have been something to see the water over those houses. I’m happy that your house was high enough to salvage belongings.

  2. Tony says:

    I can tell you what I remember but that was a long time ago. What I tell you will be true to the best as I can remember it, but some of the times the things I talk about might not be correct because I get some things mixed up.
    I remember the rain, it just rained, and rained, and rained. People were beginning to wonder if it was ever going to stop.
    On the day of the flood I was home drinking a cup of coffee and listening to the radio and they were talking about the rising water through out the Valley and if the dikes north of us would hold.
    I guess it was around 9am or so when they began to ask for volunteers to help fill sand bags along the dikes. I grabbed my jacket and hard hat and headed down to the river. When I got there the water was almost level with the dikes. It was moving so fast with all type of debris floating along. Some of the bigger things, like big trees and parts of houses, were slamming up against the Market Street bridge making for a real dangerous situation as the bridge was still open. I remember the ambulances with their sirens wailing non stop for what seamed like hours as they evacuated the low lying hospitals and nursing homes. I remember chaos, but it was controlled chaos, there was no panic. There were hundreds of people on the dikes that day and we all came together and worked as one unit with one goal in mind to try and save our city.
    There was all kinds of people there young, old, male, female, black, white, just people bound together at this point in time. Some were crying, some said nothing, while others made idle talk as some do in these situations.
    The time had come for us to evacuate. The evacuation order was given for all to leave the dikes and seek higher ground.The dikes had failed and the water was coming. I stood there for a minute trying to take in the scene the air raid sirens were sounding, the Market Street bridge was now closed ,no traffic was on the street except a couple of emergency vehicles and hush just fell over everyone. It was one of the eeriest feelings. I felt like I was alone all by myself while I was in the middle of hundreds. I had that feeling one time before when I was in the Marine Corp in the Nam and we were moving in the jungles as a company and all of a sudden I felt alone in the middle of this heavily armed unit.
    Once the evacuation order was given I went home. There was nothing else that I could do except get in the way. I had no training other than standard first aid I had taken from the Red Cross a couple of months prior to the flood.
    I could not stay home. I could not sit still. I had to do something so I went to different locations looking to see if there was something I could do. Some where along the line I ran into Susie Kaskie and her friend and I can not remember who he was so we teamed up for a while looking for ways to help. Some place we met the Wilkes-Barre police chief and he told us that basically the city was under the police control and as long as the water was still rising there was not a lot that could be done. By now it was 11pm or 12 am. I thought he is right so I decide to go home and get some sleep.
    The next day when I got up I looked out the bedroom window and from my house on Dodson Lane you could see the smoke from the fires downtown. I got dressed and made my way to the flood area going from place to place looking for something I could help with. I wound up on the South Street bridge just as a Wilkes-Barre police officer was arriving. He was getting ready to start a rescue boat launching operation from this point. The police officer had a PRIC-6 radio with him and I figured that he would not have the time to monitor radio traffic and perform all his other duties at the site. So I told him I knew how to use that radio having used these radios in the Nam I knew them well. I asked him if he would like me to operate it for him he said yes and I became the communications guy for him. I slept on the bridge that night and sometime the next day I went out in one of the rescue boats. We assisted with the evacuation of a couple of ladies from the towers there on Main Street. After that the water started to recede so I went home. The rest is just a blur of shoveling mud for days and days.
    and that’s what I remember.

    • petejoem says:

      Tony, my brother, that was fantastic. You have a great memory and you did so much good work in those days. You are also are pretty darn good writer. I never forgot what you told me about how eerie it was down at the dyke.

      • Tony says:

        Thanks Pete, I am not very good at writing. I got all this stuff in my head but it is real hard for me to get into print. It took me over an hour just to write that little bit. I could write a thousand stories about being a firefighter some funny a hell others very sad if I could concentrate long enough.

  3. petejoem says:

    Tony, write the stories. Don’t worry about structure and all that stuff, that can be fixed later. Get them out of your head and into the computer.

  4. Tony says:

    Thanks I might try that.

  5. Cindy Van Auken says:

    I’m new to Facebook and have enjoyed finding these interesting recollections of Agnes. I had just finished my sophomore year at WVW. It had rained for days and days. Listening to the news I remember telling my mother I was concerned about my high school buddy Gloria who lived on Main St. in Plymouth. Little did I know what was to come. My uncle Gene was in the National Guard and was out sandbagging, etc. and I remember my parents got a call from him late on the 23rd. He told my parents that there would be 18 ft. of water at Kingston Corners by morning. He said the dykes would not hold and we should evacuate immediately. We lived on S. Maple Ave. in Kingston. My sisters and I ran up and down the street pounding on front doors telling anyone who would listen. In the meantime, my parents filled the car. I left in my p.j.s fully thinking we’d be home the next day. I remember helping to move some things to the second floor in the event of water. We drove over the Market street bridge as water slapped up against the side of the car. My oldest sister was on her honeymoon in Niagara Falls so we found refuge in their brand new trailer in Plains. I remember hours spent glued to the radio where hour after hour people were updated on the whereabouts of family members who had gotten separated in the mass confusion and chaos. When the ok was given to return, I remember National guardsmen patrolling the area to prevent looting, etc. I remember talk of looters rifling through the sporting goods store in the Narrows Shopping Center. My sister Karen and I decided that we would stay at the house (and go against curfew) but we forgot that there would be no street lights (the electricity wasn’t restored yet). We were scared to death and vowed to NEVER do that again. We stayed awake most of the night with our flashlights shining on anything and everything that was around. As for the aftermath, I remember coming home to foul smelling homes full of thick mud. I had never seen so many earthworms in that mud. Picnic tables in the trees and it wasn’t even ours! Caskets in the backyard. Items from someone else’s yard in ours. Nothing wood would survive. The front door wouldn’t close. Heck. We never locked it before but now we couldn’t even shut it! The macaroni in the pantry had expanded all over and the freezer reeked of spoiled meat. My mother said “this is just stuff. We have our lives.” She set the tone from then on. There would be no whining and crying. We have work to do! People came out of the woodwork from all over the country! People we didn’t know knocked on our door and asked if they could help. Neighbors helped each other. We drew strength from each other. We worked tirelessly each day and would walk to the firehouse at the end of the alley on Sprague Ave. to get our lunch served to us by the Red Cross…….. White milk and spam sandwiches on what tasted like home made bread. I’ll never forget how good it tasted then. I remember soaking canned goods in Clorox and water to disinfect them. For months we would never be sure exactly WHAT we’d be eating for dinner until we opened the can! Sometimes we’d make a game out of shaking the can and trying to guess fruit? Vegetable? In the days ahead we would spend quiet time sitting on the front stoop watching and waiting for our trailer to arrive. We’d watch with amazement and awe as the driver would maneuver down our narrow street backing 3 bedroom trailers in the driveways alongside our saturated homes. Each time we’d pause and pray that this one would be ours! After getting family homes straight, a few of my sisters and I went to work on the crews that helped other people shovel out. We made good money but it was hard work. Tearing water soaked lathe off mildewed walls. Cleaning. Anything that needed to be done. We found solace that we were not alone. I don’t want to bore you too much but some of this I haven’t talked about in years. Going back to school I remember going to school on half day schedules with 11th and 12th grades going in morning and 9th and 10th grades going in afternoon at WVW.The dress code at school and church, for that matter, changed. Heck, wear whatever you have. Just come. Our world changed that summer. Nothing would ever be the same. We would never be the same. I am better because of it. Why? It taught me a lot about myself and others. We were truly “The Valley With A Heart”.

    • petejoem says:

      Cindy, Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I’ve been telling people, and it’s absolutely true; I wrote the article but you and everyone that commented here and on Facebook have told the story. This is your story, I just started it. I am trying to drum up some interest in having some kind of acknowledgement created for all of the brave people that risked their lives at the dykes. The people of the Wyoming Valley came together at the dykes and during the cleanup. I helped on the cleanup and, in that terrible scene, it was a thing of beauty.

      • Cindy Van Auken says:

        I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed talking about the flood. My mom is 83 now. I called her to tell her about your blog. I’m sure she has some better memories. I’d love to hear from others.

  6. petejoem says:

    The other thing I like to do is encourage people to write. I love to write. I’m not making any money at it so far, but I just love doing it. Check out my first few posts in this blog and the poem about writing I put up last week. If you have a story to tell, write out. It is not about how many people read it, though we all hope many do, but it is about how it makes you feel to write it.

  7. Linda Tyson Perrins says:

    Pete I believe that young man who was washed away when the dike broke was Bill Shock graduated in with me in 1970

  8. Myron W Gwinner, now 82 years old, retired since 1994 says:

    6/22/2017 Sitting in my 2-room apt in Tulsa OK. I believe I am the only living River Forecaster from the (then) Weather Bureau (in Harrisburg). It was in the wee hours of the morning (with no power, only phones) when i got a call from Wilkes Barre civil defense to see if I had a new forecast. I had just finished working working on new forecast for Towanda, having just received a miracle midnight report from our observer there, and was able to put together a new forecast that proved to be quite accurate.. I was told (I believe later) that it accused them to quit sand=bagging and evacuate. It was their decision (I think, wise) to not sound the sirens until daybreak. Our belief that no one died that night, but I see now there was one.

  9. joninmd22 says:

    While I lived on a farm outside of Bloomsburg at the time we only saw severe stream flooding. My Uncle and aunt had a house near the River in Forty Fort close to the cemetery and had a casket on their front porch. They lived out of their second floor for a year while rebuilding the first floor and basement. Dad being a contractor lent him some tools and supplies.
    My maternal grandmother lived in Kingston or Plymouth and when she heard the evacuation order ran upstairs to put a bag together and by that time her street had flooded and she had to be rescued by a boat. She was hoping for a helicopter ride but they didn’t stop and that annoyed her to no end. My paternal Grandmother had an apartment just off of South Main which was damaged but she also had a cottage where she lived that summer.

    A crazy time

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