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50 years after Hurricane Agnes, Lock Haven residents recall the flooding and its aftermath

Lock Haven levee trail
Our Town Lock Haven
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WPSU
The William Clinger Riverwalk and Lock Haven Levee Trail.

June Houser was born and raised in Lock Haven. When Hurricane Agnes began to hit, she said she and her husband anticipated some bad weather, but they did not expect the tropical storm version of Agnes that hit Pennsylvania to have such a strong impact.

“We were aware it might happen, but I don’t think anybody was really prepared for it to tell you the truth. We didn’t go and stock up the fridge or do any of that stuff ahead of time,” Houser said.

Houser said she vividly remembers the sound of the fire trucks' sirens warning the residents of Lock Haven about the incoming flood.

“The fire companies, all three of them, just started one after another. And they went on and on and on. And it just gives me goosebumps to even think about it now. Because it wasn’t fun. It was very scary,” Houser said.

Fifty years ago, Hurricane Agnes made landfall in the United States, becoming one of the most devastating natural disasters to ever hit the country. In Pennsylvania alone, the storm caused more than a billion dollars worth of damage and caused 220,000 Pennsylvanians to evacuate their homes.

lock haven flood
Rich Marcinkevage
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The aftermath of Hurricane Agnes in Lock Haven. These pictures were taken by two State Police Troopers on a rescue mission in a U.S. Army helicopter.

Hurricane Agnes hit Lock Haven on June 22, 1972. Rich Marcinkevage is the director of the Lock Haven Flood Protection Authority. He said Lock Haven has always been susceptible to flooding, but Agnes is the costliest storm the city has ever faced.

“1972 was the worst flood that the city ever had as far as economic damage. Lock Haven at the time without the levee started getting water into the city at 21 feet of river level, and Agnes was 31.1 feet. So that meant that there were parts of the city that were 10 feet underwater,” Marcinkevage said.

Marcinkevage said major employers at the time, like Piper Aircraft and Hammermill Paper, experienced significant monetary losses.

“Piper Aircraft had a number of airplanes that they couldn’t get out. So they ended up destroying all of those airplanes. Hammermill Paper was located right next to Bald Eagle Creek. It got flooded and they were out of business for quite a while. All the businesses downtown basically had about 6-8 feet of water in them, so all their inventory was gone,” Marcinkevage said.

Lock Haven Piper Aircraft
Our Town Lock Haven
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WPSU
Piper Aircraft has since relocated to Florida, but Piper plane owners meet for a reunion in Lock Haven each year.

Becky Falls worked at Lock Haven Laundry when Hurricane Agnes hit. She said the cleanup process was extremely difficult.

“I mean, it was mud, mud and more mud. Clothes. Oh, man, it was such a mess,” Falls said.

It took more than a week for Falls and her coworkers to repair what they could from the hurricane’s damage. She said the process was even scary at times.

“We didn’t know, whenever you were cleaning stuff out, if you were going to run into a snake or what was crawling. That building there was a complete mess. They had regular laundry and dry cleaning, and it destroyed the clothes. Just coated with thick mud, it was disgusting,” Falls said.

Houser was lucky; her apartment experienced minimal flooding. But she said her father’s Lock Haven home was severely flooded.

“He woke up in the middle of the morning to his cellar windows breaking as he heard the water rushing in that way. And he had water all the way up to his top step on his second landing, to the second floor,” Houser said.

Houser’s father was a doctor. Before he went to the hospital to help out, he tried to salvage what he could of his patients’ records.

“He hand wrote all his notes in ink. A lot of the records ran when they got wet. So they were laying out all over the place. He tried to slow dry them in the stove,” Houser said.

Houser said another source of panic during the storm was the city’s inaccessible roads.

“There was no access to the hospital from where it flooded. Unless you had a boat,” Houser said.

Houser remembers the fire companies pumping water from the basements in the city. She said the flood cleared up relatively quickly, but people’s personal finances and the local economy took much longer to bounce back.

“Our downtown stores, they finally got up and running on a minimal basis, but people just didn’t have the extra cash to come in and buy something frivolous. They had to wait and buy what they needed to get through day by day, to make it through the rest of a year,” Houser said.

June Houser plaque
June Houser
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Houser has a small brass plaque on the bottom of her door frame that says “29.9.” Before the levee, water would have to be 29 feet and 9 inches high to flood her home. She hopes future owners of the home will keep the plaque on the door frame as a reminder.

The physical and economic impact of Hurricane Agnes raised concerns about Lock Haven’s ability to withstand future flooding. Houser served on the Lock Haven City Council from 1982 to 1998. She said the council began to seriously consider building a levee to protect the city.

“We went and started adding up everything that was in the flood zone that got destroyed, and you added up the value of that, it was well worth the money that it took to protect us with a levee,” Houser said.

Marcinkevage said the Lock Haven Flood Protection Authority was responsible for the construction of the levee. The project was completed in 1994, but not without pushback from some residents, including over the cost of the project.

“It got to the point where people were fighting. Some of the people quit doing business with the businesses that supported it. It was controversial, and that took a long time to get over. Some people, still, I think, haven’t gotten over it,” Marcinkevage said.

But Marcinkevage said many people changed their minds when the levee withstood events in 1996, 2004 and 2018 that would have flooded downtown. He said the levee’s design will prevent a “catastrophe” in Lock Haven like Hurricane Agnes caused 50 years ago.