Jennifer D. Wade Journal

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Blog posts September 2011

A few more thoughts on the September floods, the ones caused by rain from Lee; the ones that brought flooding to communities all along the north branch and the west branch of the Susquehanna River; the ones that would have wiped out much of Wilkes-Barre, Kingston and Forty Fort had it not been for a levee that was higher than generally known.

To recap: The levee at Wilkes-Barre is widely known to protect up to 41', which is just slightly higher than the level the river reached during the Agnes flood of 1972. In reality, there are a few extra feet on top of that, so the levee really offers protection up to 44'.

During Lee, the original projected crest of 30' at Wilkes-Barre suddenly jumped to a projected crest of 38'. After that, it rose in smaller increments, settling at a projected crest of 40.9' and prompting the evacuation of areas affected by Agnes.

On the evening of Thursday, September 8, the river level at W-B seemed to level off at approx. 38.5'. Officials, however, held off on declaring that the river had crested. Early Friday morning, they finally announced a crest of 38.8'.

Later that afternoon, however, they announced that that initial crest figure was inaccurate. The river at W-B actually crested, they said, at 42.66', a figure higher than Agnes. So, Lee was now a storm of historic proportions.

Why the misinformation? At first, the officials said that the river gauge had malfunctioned due to all the water pressure. Only later did they learn - along with the rest of us - that the gauge worked properly, but it just wasn't capable of measuring anything much beyond 38'. The plan now is to replace that gauge with one that will read up to 48 or 49'. God help us if we ever have a flood where the water gets THAT high.

Let's leave aside the question of why no one in authority in Luzerne County seemed to know that the gauge wouldn't measure a river level much higher than 38'. Installing a gauge like that in an area where the water has already risen well above that level once before doesn't seem to make much sense. But, that's not the issue I want to address right now.

Rather, I want to know what would have happened if there HAD been a river gauge capable of higher readings. What would have happened HAD people in Luzerne County (and, I suppose, in other communities) realized just how high the river was? What if they HAD known from the beginning that this was going to be worse than Agnes?

As it was, with people believing that 40.9' was as high as the river would get, evacuations seemed to go mainly without incident (other than the traffic jams you might expect). Maybe most people, like me, believed the river would actually crest lower than that 40.9' projection. Anyway, I didn't get a sense of widespread panic, at least not from people in communities protected by the levee.

But, what if the river gauge had been capable of accurately measuring river levels? When people checked the river levels on the web, they would have seen a crest well above projections, rather than one that seemed to level off below projections. Under that scenario, what would have happened? Would people have tried to rush home to save more of their possessions? Would more people have tried to leave, perhaps going on to roads that would suddenly be swamped by rising water? Would there have been general panic and civil unrest?

I don't know. But, with a new river gauge on the way, if something like Lee (or worse) ever comes along, I guess we'll find out. 

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After what has happened in Northeast and central PA over the past couple of weeks, this could have been my house. It's not. But, it very easily could have been.

To backtrack a little, first came Irene, which dumped copious amounts of rain in our area in late August. Irene also came with a lot of wind, that blew down a lot of trees, that caused a lot of people to lose power. Ten days after the storm ended, there were STILL people in rural parts of Luzerne County that hadn't had their power restored.

We (and by "we" I mean the TV station where I work) might still have been talking about Irene on Day 11, except that's when Lee arrived with not so much wind, but with even more copious amounts of rain to our area and to New York State.

We knew from the start that Lee would cause problems. The original scenario called for central PA to get the brunt of it, with the west branch of the Susquehanna going above flood stage. It looked, at least initially, as though the north branch, which runs directly behind my house, would crest around 30' at Wilkes-Barre. A crest of that height means flooding in some of the low-lying areas - Shickshinny, West Pittston, West Nanticoke, Plainsville - but poses no danger to communities protected by the levee - Wilkes-Barre, Kingston, Forty Fort. The levee also runs directly behind my house, so I felt safe.

At first, that scenario appeared to be correct. On Wednesday, there was rain and the threat of flooding. We focused our coverage on how communities such as Bloomsburg, Danville and Lewisburg would prepare for possible flooding.

Then came the first bullet: the projected crest at Wilkes-Barre was raised from 30' to 38'. In one shot! Holy crap! That meant more flooding in more communities along the river and, it came dangerously close to the 41' of protection offered by the levee. Suddenly, I didn't feel so safe. However, the last time a crest that high was predicted was 2006. That time, officials made people in areas affected by Agnes in 1972 (me) get out, but the crest fell below projections at 34'. I was hoping for a similar result this time. They might say 38', but the actual crest would be 36' or something. So, even though I was worried, I wasn't WORRIED.

But, the rain kept falling and the projected crest kept rising. By the time I woke up Thursday morning, an evacuation order was in place. A guy from work called to offer assistance in moving my belongings to higher ground. At first, I refused. Then, the crest was raised to almost 40'. Now I was WORRIED! I called him right back.

By the time I got to work a little after noon on Thursday, we were in non-stop coverage. There was already severe flooding along the west branch and in communities north of Wilkes-Barre which had no levee protection. The projected crest was now 40.8' sometime early Friday morning. But, as Thursday night progressed, it seemed that the river wasn't going to go that high. It's rapid rise seemed to level off slightly below 39'. Although there had not been an official announcement that the river had crested, the rain had stopped and the worst appeared to be over. I went to the hotel for the night feeling confident that my house was safe. That feeling was confirmed in the morning when I woke up to word that the river at WB had crested a few hours earlier at approx. 38.8'.

Then came the second bullet: That first number was wrong. Oh, the river had crested all right - at 42.66' - higher than Agnes! This was no longer just a bad flood. This was an historic flood!

The announcement from Luzerne County officials came at 1 p.m. Friday. By that time, we had ended our round-the-clock coverage. But, we had just wrapped up the noon newscast and planned hourly updates until the next news cycle began at 4 p.m.

We took the news conference live at the beginning of our 1 p.m. cut-in. The cut-in was supposed to last 5-10 minutes. I think it lasted 45. We were all just stunned. Officials said a river gauge had malfunctioned*, probably because of all the water pressure, and the river had crested four feet higher than originally thought! Officials quickly added that the levee actually protects up to 44', not the 41' that many people (including me) believe. So, the crest had happened, it was just a lot higher than anyone thought.

I went to the news director and asked if we should resume wall-to-wall coverage based on this new information. I said I thought we should. He countered with an analogy, saying that learning about the higher crest after the fact was rather like being shot at one day and learning the next day how close the bullet really came. But, it doesn't change the fact that the bullet was fired the day before and that it missed. So, we held off on going wall-to-wall again, but certainly used the new information to emphasize the seriousness of the situation. If nothing else, it meant that there would be worse-than-expected flooding in many communities, and it meant that people affected by the evacuation order (me) would be out of their homes longer.

The devastation caused by Lee is massive. The house pictured above is in Bloomsburg. The house is not along the Susquehanna. It's in another part of town where Fishing Creek overflowed its banks. Many of the creeks in the area also flooded because the river was so high that the creek water had no where to go. Bloomsburg is a mess, Danville took a hit, communities in Sullivan, Bradford, Susquehanna, Lycoming, Wyoming, Schuylkill and Luzerne counties are devastated. For the most part, only the Poconos, which took a big hit from Irene, were spared.

So, anyway, back to the picture at the top. It's not my house, but it's a lot of people's houses. And, if the levee hadn't held, and if the crest had been maybe even a foot higher, it could have been my house, too.

Agnes was supposed to be a "once in a lifetime" event. I and a lot of other people who were around when Agnes hit, can now say we were around when Lee came calling. So, is that two "once in a lifetime" storms during my lifetime?

The bullet may not have hit me - this time - but now that I know how close it came, I'm a little freaked out about what could happen next time some storm decides to stick around for a while. The third time may not be so lucky.

*Update on 9/18/11: As it turns out, the river gauge didn't malfunction. It simply was unable to read anything higher than 38.8'. Apparently, no one in Luzerne County knew this. They believed it would measure up to 41'.

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Locker Room Radio

***I wrote the following a few days ago for BTE BACKSTAGE, which was soliciting submissions from people concerning where they were on September 11, 2001. They titled my post "The Locker Room Radio." I've made a few tweaks, but this is basically what I wrote.***

It’s funny what you remember about "big" events. Often, it's not the event itself that sticks with you. Rather, it's the surrounding circumstances that leave the most lasting impression – what you were doing, where you were, the song playing on the radio. Oh, and the irony. That sticks with you, too.

Maybe that’s why when I think of September 11, 2001, I think of the weather. Because, as I walked out the door to head for my regular Tuesday morning racquetball game on Harrisburg’s west shore, I couldn’t help but notice the brilliant blue sky. A few clouds floated above, but they were white and puffy, the friendly clouds that never hurt anyone.

I don’t recall exactly what time I left, but it must have been about 8:45 since we usually met around 9:00. I believe I had the TV tuned to one of the morning news shows before I left the house and certainly had the radio on in the car. Still, by the time I got to the gym and put my purse and cell phone in the locker, this Tuesday still seemed like any other.

The first indication that something was not normal came as we took a break between games. We sat on the benches outside the racquetball courts and that’s where I heard the song "When You're Falling" by Afro Celt Sound System with Peter Gabriel. A radio station had been piped in over the PA system. The gym didn't usually do that. But, all I heard was music, so I played another game or two of racquetball without thinking any more about it.

Not until we returned to the locker room, maybe around 11 a.m., did I realize what was going on. Once again, the radio was my first clue. It had been piped into the locker room, but this time, there was no music. Instead, a reporter was talking about hospitals in lower Manhattan preparing for mass casualties. I remarked out loud that something big must have happened. At that point, another woman in the locker room said something like, "Don't you know what happened? Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center and both towers are down."

The image that formed in my head was of a small, private plane and a pilot who obviously didn't know what he was doing. But, as I rushed to the TV in the lobby, then rushed to find a phone (I think my cell phone was dead), the reality of the situation became clear. This was a tragedy and I, a veteran broadcast journalist, didn't know about it until at least two hours after the fact.

The rest of the day is something of a blur. I rushed home to shower then drove to work in Harrisburg, dropping off my dog at a friend's house along the way. By the time I arrived at the TV station, coverage plans were already well underway. We frequently broke into the non-stop network coverage to provide updates on the local situation: where people could donate blood, steps being taken to secure state and federal buildings in the city, responders from central PA gearing up to head to New York. There was no shortage of stories, and we were so busy covering them that, at least for me, there really wasn’t time to immediately absorb the emotional impact of what had happened.

By 11:30 p.m., things had settled down. We had a crew on the way to the Flight 93 crash site in Shanksville, but with no more local newscasts scheduled until the morning, there wasn’t much else to do. On a normal night, the newsroom would be empty until 5:00 a.m. But, this wasn't a normal night – there could be another attack, right? - and I didn't feel that the newsroom should be unattended. So, I stayed at work through the night, alone in an eerily quiet newsroom, monitoring the TV networks, which showed constant pictures of Ground Zero illuminated by flood lights, just waiting for the next shoe to drop - and really, really hoping that it didn't. I finally left sometime in the morning once coverage plans for the day after were in motion.

So, that's how I remember September 11, 2001. A terrorist attack on a beautiful day. A broadcast journalist who didn't find out what happened until hours after the fact. A work day that started late but ended up being one of the longest of my career.

And, one final instance of irony. In the weeks and days before September 11, I and several others at the TV station had been preparing for a station-sponsored event that involved a series of functions centered around wine. In fact, one of our reporters was scheduled to shoot a preview story on September 11. The name of the event? Très Bonne Année, which translates to "very good year."

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