Contact: Bob Chartuk For Immediate Release 6/11/97
When Hurricane Agnes came ashore 25 years ago this month, her wrath was felt far beyond the coast. A prodigious rain producer, Agnes set inland flood records across the northeast, and with $3.2 billion in property damage, remained the nation's most costly natural disaster until Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Marking the storm's 25th anniversary, the National Weather Service cautions that tropical events such as Agnes can have life-threatening impacts hundreds of miles inland and the public should be aware of--and prepared for--the heavy rain, lightning and flash floods these storms can bring.
From June 19-24, 1972, Agnes dropped as much as 19 inches of rain as she roared out of the Gulf of Mexico and across every state from Florida to New York. More than 210,000 people were forced to flee for their lives and 122 were killed. When the storm finally moved through New York and southern Canada and out into the North Atlantic, long-standing flood records were shattered in six states.
Occurring early in the hurricane season (which runs from June 1-Nov. 30), Agnes achieved hurricane status for only a few hours, yet packed a huge punch as she drew up moisture from the Atlantic Ocean. With soaking rains the week before and high runoff conditions maintained by a cold spring and cool early summer, the region was primed for disaster.
"Agnes re-wrote the book on inland flooding and the impact a tropical storm can have hundreds of miles from the coast," said Sol Summer, Hydrology Division chief at the National Weather Service Eastern Region. Along the Susquehanna River for example, flood levels exceeded the record set in 1936 by up to six feet, the hydrologist noted. "The entire state of Pennsylvania was declared a disaster area."
At Harrisburg, Pa., the first floor of the Governor's mansion was under water and at the famous Glass Works Museum in Corning, N.Y., water rose almost to the ceiling and destroyed a number of priceless ancient glass objects. With 50 deaths and $2.3 billion in damages in Pennsylvania and 25 dead and $7.4 million in destruction in New York, the two states suffered some of the storm's worst losses, Summer said, noting that the damage totals are in 1972 dollars. If the losses from Agnes were adjusted to 1997 dollars, Summer added, damages would eclipse $10 billion.
Destruction was also widespread throughout Virginia. In the central part of the state, almost every creek and stream overflowed its banks and swept the adjacent lands clean. The state tallied 13 deaths and total damage was estimated at $222 million.
Storm damages in Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia were about $110 million. There were 21 deaths in Maryland, one in Delaware, and none in the District.
Other states affected by Agnes were New Jersey with one death and $15 million in damages; North Carolina with two deaths and $4.3 million in damages; and Ohio, West Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia with no loss of life and varying degrees of damage. Florida suffered nine deaths and $41 million in damage caused by high tides, winds and tornadoes.
A bold prediction by the National Weather Service River Forecast Center in Harrisburg saved many lives, according to Albert Kachic, a hydrologist who worked the storm from Eastern Region headquarters on Long Island.
"The staff warned that flood waters would overtop the levees around Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, Pa., which were built three feet above the record flood stage set during the historical flood of 1936," Kachic said. "This allowed for an orderly evacuation of almost 100,000 people and is credited with saving many lives as flood waters inundated the area." Their actions earned the forecasters U.S. Commerce Department Gold Medals, the highest award issued to Commerce personnel for outstanding service.
A storm like Agnes hitting the United States in the 1990s would face an even more formidable National Weather Service as hydrometeorologists now have more powerful tools to aide their forecasts and warnings. As part of the NWS modernization effort, cutting edge technology such as Doppler radar, weather satellites, and automated river and rain gages are in place to help monitor severe weather. In addition, forecasters can now disseminate weather information to the public and emergency management community much faster thanks to advanced computer and communication networks such as NOAA Weather Radio and the NWS Family of Services.
"As we begin another hurricane season, the question remains what to do not if a tropical storm strikes, but when," concluded Jerry Jarrell, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, who, along with staff from many NWS field offices, has been spreading the word on hurricane preparedness. "Every household and business along the coast and inland should have in place a plan on what to do when a storm approaches."
Editor's Note: Additional information on Hurricane Agnes and tropical storms can be found on the Internet through the National Weather Service Home Page at http://www.nws.noaa.gov. The page has a search mechanism which, if you type Hurricane Agnes,' will link to a wide variety of information.
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