2011-09-22 / Local & State

Flooding Over, Long Cleanup Awaits Pennsylvanians


BLOOMSBURG, Pa. (AP) – Two blocks one way and Helena Fisher’s white shingled house might have been spared.

Yet amid the ruins of the first floor of her two-story home, Fisher realizes something: If her house sat twoplus blocks in the other direction, the damage could have been even worse.

Pennsylvanians like Fisher bounce between reliving last week’s record flooding of the Susquehanna River and its tributaries; marveling at random acts of kindness from strangers; and wondering about an uncertain future. The flooding triggered by rain from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee left behind a massive, long-term cleanup job and a stew of emotions for thousands.

“I’ve lost virtually everything on the first floor. So that’s difficult,’’ Fisher, an educator who turns 56 next month, said one morning last week, as a stack of soaked record albums sat on the curb with a pile of other trash. What she’ll miss most is the antique furniture handed down from her mother, like a camelback sofa and cane-bottomed chairs.

“But so many people are so bad off,’’ she said. “It’s terrible as I drive around. You see people losing everything.

“That’s the only thing that keeps me going. When I want to cry, I have to think of that.’’

Bloomsburg floods roughly every five years – though 2011 may be the new benchmark, surpassing the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Agnes 40 years ago.

“The water came up so fast, moving between the houses so quick, it created sinkholes in yards and upended fuel tanks in basements,’’ said Bloomsburg Second Assistant Fire Chief Scott McBride. “It was a mess. It was crazy.’’

At least 2,000 homes or businesses in Pennsylvania were destroyed or heavily damaged, according to early estimates from emergency management officials.

“FEMA. We need your help,’’ read a sign written in blue marker on plywood posted on a lamppost two blocks from the fire station. Down the street was a scene common in town: piles of rusted appliances, soggy woodwork and other debris stacked in front of each home.

The situation in town returned to “just above stable,’’ First Assistant Fire Chief John Mahon said this week. There were no major injuries, he said.

Yet for every tale of destruction or near-miss, there seemed to be a story of hope or act of kindness.

With school out, children wheeled red wagons down the street offering free bottles of water to homeowners clearing out debris. Church parking lots turned into places to gather for comfort and a free meal.

Members of St. John’s Lutheran Church fired up the grill early one morning cooking hot dogs for weary residents or volunteers who arrived ready to work. For days, Bloomsburg University football players donned boots and rubber gloves to haul debris out of homes or businesses.

“If you can look at a bright side, it’s to see the community coming together. We’ve met neighbors that we didn’t know,’’ said Merrill Smith, the wife of the pastor.

Broken- down washers and dryers needed moved, as did waterlogged couches and wall insulation. A big project one morning was the removal of large freezers and the twisted, mangled remains of metal shelving from the corner market.

“Have you guys eaten yet?’’ one community organizer asked the players barely a minute after they walked off the bus before getting to work. The players politely declined.

The cleanup made the players’ own hardships pale in comparison. Like the rest of town, the water was turned off at the university, so athletes didn’t have a place to shower after morning cleanup duty and afternoon practices. But a golf club the next town over offered the players use of their locker rooms.

“ You thought it was Christmas morning when they went in and took a shower,’’ Bloomsburg assistant coach Chet Henicle said.

There were similar stories about 50 miles to the northwest in Lycoming County, where the Loyalsock Creek swept over its banks.

With phone service out in the region, the Plunketts Creek Fire Hall in Williamsport became a hub to make calls or pick up food. Unaffected residents dropped off donated clothing.

In Montoursville, Paula Fenstermacher stopped by a newly opened FEMA Disaster Recovery Center for her parents. The ranch home along the creek they had lived in for 42 years was inundated with 5 feet of water, damaging nearly everything inside.

A church offered cleaning supplies, food and gift certificates to Walmart. Friends took eight boxes of dishes to wash and sterilize.

“Keep us in your prayers is a big, big thing,’’ Fenstermacher said when asked what more people could do to help.

Fenstermacher stayed with her parents during the storm, and they retreated to a garage on higher ground when the house flooded. Now her parents are staying at Fenstermacher’s home in Montgomery.

“We’ve seen it firsthand,’’ she said. “I don’t ever want to go through it again.’’

Back in Bloomsburg, Fisher, too, has been overwhelmed by the good deeds. She was near tears when she described how a group of strangers formed a line to haul debris to the curb, or conduct triage on items that could be saved.

“That’s been the biggest blessing,’’ she said. “To have somebody come in and help who is not personally affected by it is wonderful.’’

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