In 1972, it was just a few short months before my 6th birthday, in the sleepy little town of Athens Pennsylvania when Hurricane Agnes struck. Highway 220 was just being built across the Chemung River in Athens and I remember standing on the area and seeing huge tress go down the river. The river, which used to be small, was now huge and extended into the town. I was so glad that we lived on the hill and were safe from this water.
I asked my dad with wide-eyed wonder what caused all this water to come to our town, and he replied it was Hurricane Agnes. At that point I had no clue just what that meant, but I knew it was bad just the same. The entire borough of Athens Pennsylvania was under water, and it got much worse as you went into downtown.
My family stood on the highway while my dad and other men walked Ralph's cows up from a barn to the railroad tracks and finally to the highway where they would put those cows in trucks to transport them to safety. The cows were taken to various farms in the country for safety reasons, and seeing those men put the cows on the trucks was unreal. Those cows were survivors of Hurricane Agnes because Ralph's friends and fellow farmers helped him as a small community does in a natural disaster.
From this point on the highway, one could see much more of the town, and much more of the floodwaters that were causing untold damage to the town. I see a house float down the river that really scared me. There were cars, trucks and huge uprooted trees just floating as if they were toys, I remember saying to my family that I wished this bad water would go away. Hurricane Agnes had caused major damage north of us, and some of that debris was floating past us as well.
Of course, during the flood you could not get into downtown by food, but after the water settled boats would go down Main Street and reveal the horror of it all. Water up to the second floors of buildings, and those building that had cellars in them was flooded as well. The main elementary school was flooded up to the third floor, while your post office received water quite high as well. I remember seeing images of the post office, it looked like a building on an island, and it appeared scary as was all of Hurricane Agnes.
I went down with my parents to help their friends Leona, Donnie, and Susie clean out the Tioga Point hotel, which was their bar. Mud covered every surface on the main floor and was two to three inches on the second floor. The parking lot had so much mud on it that you sank down quite a few inches, it made a sucking noise when you lifted a foot to take a step. My parents, along with countless other people help clean this bar up and got this family back into business.
After my parents helped there a few hours one day we went up to Ralph's house where the cows were rescued and his big two story yellow house was still standing but had been moved off the cellar, which was full of mud. There was a wooden plank from the ground, stretching over the three-foot span to get to the house. My dad told me that the mud there was at least eight foot deep, and I could not fathom how deep that was, but I knew it was bad. The house was destroyed by Hurricane Agnes, along with everything inside, so there was no option but to tear it down. A trailer was put on the property and Ralph and his wife never rebuilt their home.
Several families that were friends of our family were now homeless by Hurricane Agnes, and I remember us kids sharing our toys with some of them. Shirley and Ed, got a new trailer that was temporary because their house was destroyed, Paul and Grace left the downtown area and choose to build a house out in the country on a huge hill. The floods wiped out almost a hundred homes in our small town, including the two that sit on the lot where my own home was built in 1993.
FEMA supplied trailers to lots of families like Shirley and Ed who had four small children, and the Red Cross provided clothes. Friends and other family member provided what they could, and everyone helped each other as best they could. All over town, people were helping other people and Hurricane Agnes brought the community together.
The President would declare Pennsylvania a disaster area and damage from Hurricane Agnes would exceed 2.3 billion dollars while the total damages for the country would exceed 3.1 billion. Over 117 people were confirmed dead within the United States from Hurricane Agnes and 48 of those deaths occurred in Pennsylvania.
Old timers around here said this was a hundred year flood meaning that a flood like this only occurs every hundred years. There are dikes on the rivers now, which are very high, but I wonder if another flood like the one that came with Hurricane Agnes , comes again will the dikes hold it back?
This article was written from my personal memories of Hurricane Agnes, which occurred in late June 1972. Our town learned valuable lessons from this flood as did our neighbors in surrounding areas up and down the Susquehanna and Chemung rivers, which merge just below Athens. The river is something we never take for granted any longer, as we, all know if it happened once it can happen once more.
To learn more about Hurricane Agnes and the damage it caused read the following links.