2012-08-30 / Local & State

2011’s Hurricane Irene Among Worst Storms In Pennsylvania

By Peter Jackson

ASSOCIATED PRESS

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – An April flood, an August hurricane, a tropical storm in September. Could Nature throw anything else at Rob and Karyn Brenkacs and their eastern Pennsylvania neighbors?

The couple and their three children were forced from their home on Yellow Breeches Creek when it flooded in the spring. Three months later, they moved back after repairs were made to their home in Camp Hill.

But the homecoming celebration didn't last long.

Hurricane Irene blew into the state on Aug. 27, 2011, followed within weeks by Tropical Storm Lee.

Though the fall storms were not the most damaging to hit the state, their “one-two punch” had devastating effects, said Ruth Miller, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

A year after Irene, PEMA is still working with local officials to process applications for a hazard-mitigation program that allows homeowners to sell flood-prone properties to the government, Miller said.

Also still pending are thousands of requests from state and local agencies and certain nonprofits for funds to pay for debris removal, road repairs and other disaster-recovery work.

At least six deaths were blamed on the hurricane. Its lashing winds and rain wreaked havoc on eastern Pennsylvania, flooded creeks and rivers, uprooted trees and knocked out electrical power to hundreds of thousands of residents.

Less than two weeks later, on Sept. 6, Tropical Storm Lee arrived, bringing historic floods and killing at least 12 people.

Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for the Public Utility Commission, said 1.3 million Pennsylvania electricity customers were affected by Hurricane Irene during the 12 days it took to restore service. At the peak of the power outages, more than 750,000 customers had no electricity.

The commission asked power companies in a followup survey to rank the severity of the hurricane.

Overall, the hurricane and its remnants that blasted the Caribbean, the eastern U.S. and Canada rank among the costliest in history. The storm system killed more than 50 people and affected more than 110 million people living in the 15 U.S. states where deaths or damage occurred.

Of the Pennsylvania deaths blamed on Irene, three were caused by falling trees, PEMA says. Among the others, one person drowned when she was swept away by raging waters; another fell off a deck and fractured his neck, a third person's death was described as related to the power outage.

Damage from the hurricane and tropical storm together accounted for about $425 million in losses covered by government relief agencies and private insurers in Pennsylvania.

Still, “as tremendous as those dollar amounts are, damages from Hurricane Agnes in 1972 would translate to over $11 billion in today's dollars,” Miller said.

Irene was one of the worst storms Allentown-based PPL Electric Utilities has encountered, affecting 428,000 of the company's 1.4 million customers and bearing a price tag of $32 million to cover overtime for employees working double shifts, equipment replacement and other expenses.

The experience underscored the need to improve communications with customers and resulted in changes that included expanding the capacity of the company's call center and hiring a vendor to help manage calls during peak periods, said spokesman Joe Nixon.

When Tropical Storm Lee was closing in in September, neighbors helped the Brenkacs move their possessions to higher ground – taking smaller items to the second floor of the home and elevating furniture and appliances on cinder blocks and makeshift scaffolding on the first floor.

For two tense days, the family waited and watched floodwaters creep toward the house. Then the storm veered in another direction and the waters receded.

“We were really lucky,” Karyn Brenkacs said.

The Brenkacs now are finishing some landscaping at their home. They enjoy the pastoral beauty of their backyard and their proximity to the creek where they can swim, fish and kayak, she said.

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