Editor's note: Forty years ago, rains from Tropical Storm Agnes pounded the Northeast, causing major flooding and millions of dollars worth of damage. The Juniata Valley was not spared, and the effects of that storm can still be felt today.
On the 40th anniversary of the flood, we, of course, look back at the devastation the flood caused in the region on Pages A8 and A9, but we also take a look at how what happened then has shaped economic development and emergency preparedness in the region today.
LEWISTOWN - In June 1972, the usually placid waters of the Juniata River were interrupted by three days of heavy rainfall from Tropical Storm Agnes. As rain poured from the sky, water rushed over the banks of the river, inundating the south side of Lewistown, flooding roads all the way to Juniata County and destroying thousands of homes. As the floodwaters receded, millions of dollars in damage was revealed, including irreversible harm to "the Viscose" and other local businesses.
Photo courtesy of Mifflin County Historical Society
Flood waters lap at the curbs in front of the Hotel Lewistown and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in this June 1972 view of Water Street from Dorcas Street in Lewistown.
Although it's been 40 years since the infamous flood of '72, the area is still recovering.
"Clearly, it was devastating to the community," Robert Postal, president and CEO of the Mifflin County Industrial Development Corp., said.
Prior to 1972, the rayon-manufacturing American Viscose Corp., owned by Food Machinery Corp., was located on the right bank of the Juniata River. The site was less than a decade old in 1936, when the first of two record-breaking floods swept through the area.
At the time, the complex was young and management decided to reopen, Postal said. Thirty-six years later, the complex was under water once again. A substantial part of infrastructure at the facility was in basement areas, all of which flooded. Thousands of pieces of machinery were inundated in silt and debris.
This time, the property was beyond reasonable repair and the doors at FMC closed for good.
According to a history of the complex, FMC granted the deed to the complex over to the county after its closure. It is now the site of the MCIDC Plaza and 25 area businesses. Since the flood, MCIDC has renovated and leased more than 700,000 square feet of the property, Postal said. By providing a place for companies to expand or relocate, he believes Mifflin County can recover from the economic burden the flood left behind.
Of course, investment is a risk for companies or families relocating to a flood plain and many wonder whether a similar flood could happen again.
"I don't think there's anything we could do to eliminate the threat of a flood like the one in '72," Phil Lucas, director of the Mifflin County Office of Public Safety, said.
However, Lucas and Postal are confident that the risk of property loss and damage would be significantly lower now than it was when Agnes washed through the area.
"Communication, technology and awareness of risks is better now," Postal said.
Since the flood, the MCIDC complex has developed a disaster plan that is reviewed and modified annually. To prevent property loss in the future, utilities like transformers and electrical units are located above the flood line. The machinery that was once housed in the basements of the complex has been relocated to higher floors. Quick electrical disconnects also have been installed for motors that were previously bolted to the floor.
The Mifflin and Juniata County offices of public safety also play an important role in emergency preparation. Lucas said the office keeps an eye on typical weather conditions and receives notifications from the National Weather Service, Middle Atlantic River Forecast Center and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when there is a significant change in river conditions.
"There have been very good improvements in the last two to three years between coordination of those three agencies," Lucas said.
When potentially hazardous conditions are approaching, Lucas prepares a "blast email" which sends local agencies two-day notice of significant weather impacts.
"It's only ever a prediction," Lucas said, but the notification allows for planning and preparation in local government offices, hospitals, nursing homes and utility companies.
Each company in the MCIDC Plaza is responsible for its own preparedness plan and contents. If a blast email warns that the river will crest up to floor level, computers, machinery and other items are moved to higher elevations. Assuming that the building floods, damage will be limited to carpets and furnishings at flood level, Postal said.
"We could be cleaned up pretty quickly and back in operation," Postal said.
With Raystown Dam in full operation, it is even less likely that Lewistown will see another event as devastating as the flood of '72 anytime soon.
"When Raystown Dam holds back, we see a 10 foot decrease in what the Juniata River could've been," Lucas said.
Although early preparation and communication will help protect the business district, local officials remind area residents that an emergency preparedness plan is important in reducing personal property loss as well.
"Know what happens in your area and be prepared," Lucas urged.
In the case of a flood or other emergency, relief units will respond but may not be able to reach everyone immediately, he said. Everyone is encouraged to visit the ReadyPA website, which is a comprehensive emergency preparedness resource for Pennsylvania residents. He said local families should develop an emergency plan incase a severe weather warning is issued.
The public can also stay updated on impending weather conditions through AlertPA, a public information agency that provides timely emergency notifications. The service is free to the public and sends notifications directly to email and mobile devices, Lucas said. Citizens can sign up for a number of notifications including Amber Alerts, correctional facilities, statewide notifications, weather warnings and advisories, nationwide notifications and more.