Remembering Hurricane Agnes

In June of 1972, I went on a trip to Miami Beach with my close friend Yvonne, her brother John, his wife Regina, and their young daughter Denise. We booked adjoining rooms at a motel for the week. We planned to drive mid-week to Orlando for our first visit to Disneyworld. Our initial excitement and high spirits were dampened when we arrived at our hotel to learn that a tropical storm was heading our way and picking up steam quickly. Sure enough, the next morning, I stuck my head outside our motel door and felt it was about to be blown off only to roll down the street along with everything else flying about.

Hurricane Agnes started forming as a tropical depression on June 14th and headed eastward from the Yucatan Peninsula. It developed further in the Caribbean and was upgraded to a hurricane on June 18th, making landfall in Panama City on June 19th. Watching the TV for weather updates throughout the day, we finally accepted that we couldn't venture out until things settled down considerably. We killed time playing cards, snacking and telling old stories from our childhood days in northeast Pesnnsylvania.

Agnes became the costliest hurricane to hit the United States in recorded history at that time. In the end, damages were in the billions and 121 people were dead. The winds hitting the Florida coast were super strong. But it was the immense amount of rain the storm brought to the northeastern United States that proved to be most deadly. Little did we know that our blustery and rainy Florida greeting was nothing compared to what we'd see when we went home.

Venturing out two days after our arrival, we made up for lost time and did typical tourist things. By the fourth day, it was sunny weather, so we hit the beach! I floated on a raft beyond the waves and promptly fell asleep in tranquil waters. When I awoke, I'd drifted so far out, I couldn't see land. I was terrified and strained to hear any sounds of civilization! I finally made out very small specks on the horizon that looked like ants. I prayed this was people on the beach and that I wasn't hallucinating!
Paddling in the direction of the tiny specks, I finally made out a strip of beach and thought I could hear low intermittent sounds of voices. You cannot imagine how relieved I was to finally see land, people and no sharks! I thanked God for sparing my life. Then I made my way back to my friends. They weren't aware I'd had such an alarming experience. Later, I paid a painful price, as I had a deep red, stinging sunburn.

Despite my chills and an uncomfortable night's sleep, the next morning, I was ready for the Orlando trip. We had a small rental car that made it impossible to find a position that didn't hurt. I couldn't sit back, so I leaned forward in agony. After we parked, we moved swiftly through the park to squeeze all we could in one day ...it was magical! Afterwards, we were exhausted and trudged on to the parking lot. We looked everywhere but couldn't find our car in the massive lot. The five of us divided up and went up and down rows hoping to spot the rental car. No luck whatsoever!

When we exited the park, we apparently entered a totally different lot. Flagging down a park policeman on a scooter, he asked if we parked in the Goofy or the Dumbo lot....say whaaaat?? It seems there were multiple lots with their own names. He rode around after we described our rental car and finally found it....in another lot, of course. Languishing more than an hour in the hot sun while he located our vehicle, we sure felt downright Goofy!

On the last day of our stay, we had just enough time for a beach visit as our plane was leaving mid-day. Lying in the warm sand, I soon drifted off. I heard a barely audible voice in the distance say 'Agnes hits Scranton-Wilkes Barre in Pennsylvania...disaster declared' I thought to myself, 'That can't be! We'd made it through just fine in Florida. Surely, the hurricane would have fizzled out by the time it landed in the northeast.' A moment later, the voice was louder and clearer. It was the newspaper boy hawking the news that, 'Scranton-Wilkes Barre underwater after Agnes hits.' Groan...

Bolting upright, I anxiously bought a paper. My eyes were riveted to the front page photos. The flooding was so bad that you could barely see the tops of street lights peeking out of the water. Many miles of houses in several communities along the riverfront were underwater, bridges were out and hundreds of cars were destroyed. Fresh graves gave up coffins as the ground swelled with rushing water. A few funeral homes unknowingly released bodies from caskets in viewing rooms. It was a macabre and grisly sight as they floated out into the streets.

All services were disrupted and thousands of people displaced. We flew home but were initially not allowed to land at the airport. The National Guard had taken over to establish a Command Center to plan and prioritize emergency services. We circled awhile and finally landed there when our pilots radioed there wasn't enough fuel to get to another airport.

At home, my mother said I had some urgent calls from Wilkes College. I was enrolled in their BS Nursing program. They needed nurses to board helicopters with medical crews. First aid and triage in the flood zone was critical, but that phase passed by the time I reached home. Returning to Wilkes in September, I sat in a heavily-damaged class room with watermark stains on the walls around the perimeter of the room. The marks were almost at ceiling height. It was a chilling thought that this room was filled with flood waters when Agnes hit.