When a storm named Agnes arrived in Pittsburgh in June 1972, she was the first tropical storm of the season and drenched this region with more than eight inches of rain.
Forty three years ago this summer, mountaineers in West Virginia lost their shacks and affluent people in New York’s affluent Westchester County experienced damage to their fancy homes because of the wettest tropical cyclone on record in Pennsylvania’s history.
On June 24, 1972, President Richard Nixon declared five states disaster areas: Pennsylvania, Maryland, Florida, Virginia and New York.
Two weeks before Agnes blew into town, a series of rains swept across New York and Pennsylvania, completely saturating the ground so that it was unable to absorb additional water.
In Pennsylvania, the storm left 220,000 people homeless. Damage and death toll were the highest in Pennsylvania, with more than $2 billion in losses and 50 fatalities.
Harrisburg was inundated; 8,500 people there had to leave their homes.
In Wilkes-Barre, 45,000 people went to emergency shelters; the community’s water supply was contaminated and it lost phone service due to the raging Susquehanna River.
The Ohio River swamped the city of Wheeling, W.Va.
But for the construction of 10 flood control dams that ring Pittsburgh, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated, the waters that inundated the Golden Triangle would have been two feet higher than that of the famous March 1936 flood on St. Patrick’s Day.
Hurricane Agnes inflicted $45 million in damage on Pittsburgh. If the flood control dams had not been built, the Corps of Engineers, estimated, damage would have soared past the $1 billion mark. Erie was the only Pennsylvania county to be spared.
Pennsylvania’s climate, location and terrain all played a role. A wet weather state subject to sudden and violent storms, Pennsylvania typically receives 40 thunderstorm days each year. The state also lies in a hurricane pathway and its steep valleys channel runoff from storms.
Taking into account damage in all five states, Hurricane Agnes killed 122 people, destroyed 5,000 homes and damaged 100,000 more, and left 400,000 people homeless, according to Gen. Richard H. Groves, a corps engineer for the North Atlantic Division who testified before Congress.
Half of Pennsylvania’s National Guard was mobilized to do relief work and used helicopters and boats to rescue people.
Gov. Milton Shapp knew all about the flood because the Georgian mansion he occupied, which is set on land overlooking the Susquehanna River, had two feet of water in it, covering the home’s first floor.
*A note on the images: The Pittsburgh Press librarians were known to fold oversized prints in half to fit them into standard-sized archival envelopes. Thus, many of the paper’s beautiful large photo prints are permanently creased, including many from Hurricane Agnes.