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Remembering Hurricane Agnes and the Flood of '72

Susquehanna River and Harrisburg's East and West ShoreLazily cutting between Harrisburg’s east and west shore, the Susquehanna River is widely known as a spot for pleasure boating and fishing. But it hasn’t always been a benign and picturesque waterway.

In late June of 1972 the remnants of Hurricane Agnes struck the Keystone state, including the Susquehanna Valley. Ranked as Pennsylvania’s worst disaster, Agnes inundated the area with eighteen inches of rain in a two day period from June 22nd to June 24th. The Susquehanna River swelled and surged over her banks before cresting at a staggering 33.27 feet, a record that remains to this day.

Strangely, there was no advance warning of flooding. The storm was initially expected to sweep through, delivering only occasional heavy rain. But when Agnes stalled over Pennsylvania that reality quickly changed. It became apparent the storm was going to batter the region with a deluge heavy enough to rival Harrisburg’s 1936 flood – a benchmark by which all storms had previously been measured.With a double punch of wind and rain, it didn't take long for Agnes to surpass that record.

Homeowners in outlying regions who’d considered their properties untouchable were suddenly bailing basements. In Harrisburg, Governor Milton Shapp and his wife had to be rescued from the Governor’s Mansion by boat. Streets and bridges were swallowed by floodwaters, and in parts of the state, homes were swept away by the angry turbulence. The Red Cross and the Salvation Army worked tirelessly to provide food, beds and safety for those who suddenly found themselves homeless – 220,000 in all.

Agnes wreaked havoc from Georgia to New York, venturing west into Ohio, but Pennsylvania suffered the brunt of the storm, racking up over 2 billion dollars in damage -- an astounding amount in its day. Harrisburg and Wilkes-Barre were the hardest hit. The destruction was so extreme President Nixon declared the entire state a disaster area.

It’s been said the brunt force of Agnes (a Category 1 hurricane for just 36 hours) wasn’t at fault so much as the massive scope of the storm. A rare June hurricane, Agnes had a diameter of a staggering 1000 miles.

The name Agnes still packs power for those who remember 1972. For others, it lingers as an ominous reminder of a time in history when Pennsylvania stood fast against a catastrophic disaster and emerged stronger for the trial.

So, the next time you go boating or fishing on the Susquehanna River, take time to appreciate the recreational pleasure she brings – a benefit enjoyed by generations of Central Pennsylvanians!

Candy Ortenzio
Executive Administrator
Brownstone Real Estate Co.