(WHTM) — It was the most costly natural disaster in American history, and it hit Pennsylvania the hardest. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Hurricane Agnes.
The story of Agnes begins on June 11, 1972, when ripples in the atmosphere appear in the western Caribbean sea. It ends on July 6, when the last vestiges of the storm are absorbed by another weather system out in the Atlantic, south of Iceland.
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When Agnes eventually sputtered out, it left behind an estimated death toll of 128, of whom 50 were from Pennsylvania. The storm also caused around 3.1 billion dollars in property damage. (In 2022 dollars that translates to about 21.44 billion dollars.) Of that, about 2.1 billion, or 14.52 billion in 2022 dollars, happened in the Keystone State.
Over the years, we’ve done many, many stories about Hurricane Agnes. In this timeline we will show you some of those stories, to show you how the storm affected people in both the short and long term. In addition, we will bring you footage from other areas that sustained damage as a result of Hurricane Agnes.
In a sense, Agnes can be considered two storms. Stage one starts out in the Caribbean as a tropical depression, then a tropical storm, and then a hurricane. In stage two it morphs into a major rainstorm as it moves over the Northeast. That second stage was what caused the damage in Pennsylvania, as it triggered the worst flooding in the state’s history.
The Water Recedes
Thursday, June 29:
Agnes reaches the northernmost point on its track, 61 degrees north, 25 degrees west. This places it South-southwest of Iceland. It then turns southeast, heading for Scotland.
As cleanup continues in Harrisburg, residents get unexpected and welcome help.
Wednesday, June 28:
The Harrisburg Patriot and Evening News resume publishing, using the printing presses of the Allentown Call-Chronicle. They will have to shovel out over a quarter-million dollars worth of soggy newsprint and other supplies from their offices.
As water recedes, PennDOT begins taking stock of how many roads and bridges will need to be repaired or replaced. There are more than 370 miles of road closed, and 252 bridges are out of service, either damaged or destroyed outright. (That is for state road bridges only; if you add in local bridges, around 622 are out of commission.)
Tuesday, June 27:
Agnes reaches Cape Breton Island in Canada, and re-intensifies as it enters the north Atlantic.
The process of cleanup continues. Homeowners are coming home to houses filled with vile smelling mud, soaked walls, and warping floors. Perhaps most painful of all, many precious family heirlooms have been ruined, and must be added to the rapidly growing trash piles.
The First Pictures-Views from Above:
A relatively new technology, satellite imagery, will play a huge role in tracking the development and path of Agnes. The Applications Technology Satellite 3 (ATS-3), launched in 1967, is parked in a geostationary orbit 22,236 miles above Earth’s equator. The orbit speed matches the speed of Earth’s rotation, meaning the satellite always faces the same part of the planet. The images ATS-3 sends back shows the entire planet from North Pole to South. (ATS-3 will stay in service into the 1990s.)
Sunday, June 11
The National Weather Service takes note of an area of “banded convection” in the northwest Caribbean Sea. It’s the very beginning of hurricane season. As of yet, no storms have been named.
Monday, June 12:
ATS-3 Transmits an image showing clouds over the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico starting to develop a circulating pattern.
Tuesday, June 13
More satellites images from ATS-3 show the tropical disturbance system continuing to intensify.
Wednesday, June 14
While the tropical disturbance in the Caribbean continues to intensify, the middle Atlantic region is getting socked by rain. Many locations in Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have already received as much rain in June as they normally get for the entire month. The ground is saturated, and steam levels are already elevated.
Thursday, June 15
The storm in the Caribbean develops winds in the 30-35 mph range. At 11:30 EDT the National Hurricane Center issues a bulletin stating that “Small craft around the northwestern Caribbean, the southeastern Gulf of Mexico, and thru the Florida Straits should not venture into open waters.” The bulletin also says that “The tropical depression is expected to drift northward this afternoon and tonight and conditions favor a slow strengthening.”
Friday, June 16:
In an advisory issued by the National Hurricane Center at noon EDT, the depression is officially upgraded to a tropical storm, and given a name-“Agnes”. It is the first named storm of the 1972, and the first-and last-time that name will be used.
Agnes the Hurricane
Saturday, June 17, was the day Agnes ramped up to hurricane status. It didn’t ramp up very far-it was only a category one hurricane, the lowest classification on the Saffir–Simpson scale. Category one is defined as having wind speeds between 74 miles per hour and 95 miles per hour. Most of the time, Agnes’ winds were in the low end of the category, though there were some gusts up to the 95 mph range. It only stayed a hurricane for about 36 hours; the rest of the time it moved back and forth between tropical storm and tropical depression status. Wind damage was not what Agnes would be remembered for. But while Agnes was very weak, it was also big; at its largest it measured over 1000 miles across. This enormous bubble of moisture would do most of its damage when the bubble popped over the northeastern United States.
Saturday, June 17:
Tropical Storm Agnes is rapidly nearing hurricane status. Gale warnings and hurricane watches are posted along the western coast and keys of Florida. By evening, observations put Agnes’ barometric pressure at 986mb. The National Hurricane Center issues an advisory at 6 p.m. officially upgrading Agnes to a hurricane-just barely. The sustained winds of near 75 mph are just 1 mph above the tropical storm/hurricane boundary, but there are also gusts of 95 mph. And Agnes is predicted to gain strength…
Sunday, June 18
This is the day Hurricane Agnes starts killing people. The eye of the storm passes by Cuba without making landfall, but high winds, heavy rains and flooding forces more than 8000 people to evacuate, and causes the deaths of at least seven people.
As the the storm continues its northward path, the outer bands of Agnes spawn tornados in the Florida Keys and mainland. At the time 19 tornados are confirmed; twenty years later, a review of the evidence ups the number of tornados to around 28, with seven severe thunderstorms. Seven people die, hundreds are injured, and property damage reaches $4.5 million. The final death toll in Florida will be nine.
Monday, June 19:
The eye of Hurricane Agnes makes landfall near Panama City, on the west coast of Florida. It produces abnormally high tides in the 6-7 foot range.
Shortly after landfall, Agnes loses steam. It weakens and appears to lose circulation as the system progresses over the Florida panhandle. Reports of four to six feet of storm surge came in from the east of Agnes’ center.
The Tropical Storm
Tuesday, June 20:
As Agnes continues on its path through Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, the National Hurricane Center downgrades Agnes to a tropical storm at 6 p.m. EDT on June 20. Two hours later, all gale warnings along the West Coast of Florida are discontinued. Agnes is downgraded to a tropical depression. (Two people die in North Carolina.)
By afternoon heavy rain from Agnes spreads north into the Shenandoah and James River Basins in Virginia
At the same time a cold front moves south from the Great Lakes region, causing heavy rains in New York and Pennsylvania, saturating the ground even further.
The Floods Begin
Wednesday, June 21:
Tropical storm Agnes travels north along the Atlantic seaboard. In Pennsylvania and New York, rains intensify.
Reports of flash floods in the mountains of Virginia, with up to 10 inches of rain, are being sent to the river forecast center in Harrisburg.
In upstate New York, several inches of rain triggers flooding of the Chemung River and its tributaries.
Thursday, June 22:
Torrential rain pours across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York.
Tropical storm Agnes continues traveling northward, bringing heavy rain to the mid Atlantic and northeastern US. Sustained winds of 70 mph keep the storm just below hurricane status.
Governor Milton Shapp makes an emergency proclamation at 8:45 a.m. mobilizing the National Guard. (Shapp is generally credited with coining the term “Hurricane Agony” to describe the storm.)
In Harrisburg, the Patriot News puts out its morning edition, warning about rising water. It will be its last edition for six days, as the printing presses flood and their building on Market Street is evacuated.
In Virginia and Maryland, the rain is slacking off, but rivers are flooding to never before seen levels. The James River at Richmond, VA, shatters the record flood level set just three years earlier by Hurricane Camille.
The death toll from Agnes will be 13 in Virginia, and 19 in Maryland, including three children who drown when floods sweep a car off the highway. One successful rescue effort was caught on camera:
Agnes drops 8.46 inches of rain on Lancaster County, causing major flooding and damage-and 10 deaths.
Late on the 22nd Agnes makes its final landfall at Long Beach, New York, on Long Island, with winds of 65 mph. The barometer reading drops to 977 millibars, the lowest reading in the course of the storm.
Agnes begins to transition into an extratropical cyclone, as it meets up with a cold air system from the Great Lakes.
Friday, June 23:
Agnes finishes merging with the Great Lakes cold front, and becomes an extratropical cyclone. It “loops” across Pennsylvania, becomes almost stationary, then starts slowly working its way northwestward. The heaviest rains of the storm come this day, with 19 inches of rain falling in Schuylkill County. Harrisburg will have a maximum 24 hour rainfall of 12.55 inches.
The River Forecast Center, located in the Federal Building at Harrisburg, loses power at 7:15 AM. An emergency generator is airlifted to the roof to restore some power to the center. All across the flood area, electric, water, and phone services go down.
The new (four years old) Governor’s Mansion on Front Street Floods with 2 feet of water on the first floor, and the Governor is forced to evacuate.
Thirteen homes on 2nd Street just north of McClay Street (across the street diagonally from the Governor’s Mansion) burn to the ground-or the waterline-because firefighters can’t reach them.
A curfew is established for Harrisburg, from 7:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. Flooding is equally bad in Lower Allen Township on the West Shore
In York County the storm caused the deaths of two people. Agnes dropped 13.05 inches of rain from June 21 to June 22, and filled the Indian Rock Dam reservoir. Built in response to the flood of 1933, the dam never overflowed-until Agnes filled the reservoir with 9.1 billion gallons of water. With nowhere else to go, the water flowed down the dam’s spillway to York. But while the dam didn’t stop all the water, it did its job-it is estimated the flood crest of the Codorus Creek, which runs through York, would have been 10 feet higher had Indian Rock Dam not been there. Instead, the water crested at around four feet over flood stage.
In Lancaster County the flood stage at Marietta reaches 60 feet, with 1,090,000 cubic feet of water passing by the community per minute. The previous record was 787,000 cfm, set in 1936.
In Wilkes-Barre the water approaches the tops of the levees built after the 1936 flood. A call for volunteers goes out, and thousands show up to help buttress the levees with sandbags. But just before 11:00 a.m. flood waters began spilling over the sandbags. Sirens sound 14 minutes later, and the volunteers abandon their work to move to safety. Thousands are forced to flee to higher ground. The river would not stop rising until Saturday when it crests at a record high of 40.6 feet.
Elmira and Corning, New York are flooded by the Chemung River, which feeds into the Susquehanna just south of the NY-PA border. Water crests several feet about previous flood levels. In Corning, 18 people were listed as dead or missing. Incredibly, there are no fatalities in Elmira. As the days continued, the death toll reaches 21. In the entire state of New York, the death toll will be 24.
At the Conowingo Dam in Maryland, operators open all 53 floodgates for the first time since the 1936 flood. They register the highest flow rates and stream heights ever. Just south of the dam, Port Deposit, Maryland, is evacuated late on the 23rd as the flood waters rise.
Saturday, June 24:
The Susquehanna River crests “nearly simultaneously” from the New York-Pennsylvania border to the Chesapeake Bay. In Harrisburg the river crests at 32.57 feet, 16 feet over flood stage. On a typical day around 23 billion gallons of water flow past Harrisburg. On June 24, 650 billion gallons of water flow by the city-and around it, turning Harrisburg into an island.
President Richard Nixon visits Harrisburg. The presidential helicopter touches down at William Penn High School at around 10:30 AM. President Nixon visits evacuees who are sheltering at the school. WHTM (or WTPA, as it was then) was the only station with a camera at the scene.
That same day, a Steelton family would lose one of their members to the flood. The man’s sister recalled the tragic incident twenty years later.
With power and phone lines down, it was difficult to find out what was going on in Upper Dauphin County. The borough of Lykens was almost totally underwater. Helicopters were the only means of reaching many people.
In Wilkes-Barre the flood crests at around 41 feet, almost four feet higher than the levees built after the 1936 flood, and 18 feet above flood stage. About 80,000 people evacuate the city; the surrounding areas bring the total number up to around 100,000.
Sunday, June 25:
Agnes loops across southern Ontario. A tornado in Maniwaki, Ontario kills two people. The storm’s course changes to east-northeast.
The water begins to recede, though it will be several days before it drops back below flood stage. People start returning to their homes, to begin the painful task of cleaning up.
Cleanup begins in Wilkes-Barre. Mud everywhere and on everything, huge piles of trash, the Army Corps of Engineers called in to help with cleanup, and the phone company putting out a call for hair dryers to dry out their electronics so service can be restored.
Monday, June 26:
Four people die in a helicopter crash at Capital City Airport. Del Vaughn of CBS News and Sid Brenner and Louis Clark of WCAU-TV in Philadelphia, along with pilot Mike Sedio, had been covering the flooding.
From 1992, a story of one person who can barely remember the flood, and another who remembers it all too well because she was running the only publishing newspaper in the Harrisburg area.