Your Stories of Survival: Capturing MemoriesSep 04, 2020 11:09AM ● By James Rada Jr.
Bloomsburg Fairgrounds submerged in water
For a short time in 1972, Pennsylvanians thought they had dodged a bullet.
Hurricane Agnes hit Florida on June 19, 1972, and cut a swath of damage through the South as it made its way north, losing intensity. The hurricane made landfall a second time, near New York City, on June 22, 1972. With it came rain (up to 19 inches in some areas of the state) and flooding. The Harrisburg Evening News reported that when the Susquehanna River crested, “650 billion gallons of water gushed through Harrisburg, where the normal river volume is 23 billion gallons a day.” Some buildings, including the Governor’s Mansion, had their first floors submerged.
Rising waters trapped residents. First-responders and Good Samaritans rushed to help those in need. Of the 128 deaths from Hurricane Agnes, 50 were in Pennsylvania—more than any other state. Flooding unearthed graves in Forty Fort, leaving additional human remains spread across Luzerne County.
Andrew Stuhl, an associate professor of environmental studies and sciences at Bucknell University, in Lewisburg, Pa., is collecting stories of the survivors and heroes from Hurricane Agnes before the information is lost to history.
“In its day, it was the worst natural disaster in American history,” Stuhl said of the event.
Hurricane Agnes is considered the wettest tropical cyclone on record in Pennsylvania. Property loss and damage from the storm was $2.1 billion, and 208,000 Pennsylvanians had to leave their homes.
As Lois Kalp wrote in A Town on the Susquehanna, “The most distinctive feature of the disaster was the rush of Bull Run [in Lewisburg] … in oceanic waves that were terrifying to the viewer…..ruined houses, wrecked bridges, washed-out roads, uprooted trees, and debris greeted the eyes of stunned unbelieving onlookers.”
Four local people lost their lives. Lewisburg Chief of Police Gordon Hufnagle drowned trying to save Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Murphy, who were swept downriver to Winfield, and Mrs. William Minium was killed when her house collapsed.
According to the Mifflinburg Telegraph, June 29, 1972, Congressman Herman Schneebli was initially unable to visit the flood-stricken area of his district because the airports and roads were closed. Even phone service was difficult because flooding had downed telephone poles and wires. Schneebli, Sen. Hugh Scott and Gov. Milton Shapp worked together to coordinate relief efforts.
In Lewisburg, a Flood Plan Ordinance was developed to control building in low-lying areas and redevelop parts of town damaged by the 1972 flood. It was necessary to demolish buildings along Lewisburg’s 5th Street due to extensive damage. Beautiful Hufnagle Park, in the center of Lewisburg, was built to honor Gordon Hufnagle’s memory.
Stuhl is working with a research assistant Bethany Finch (Bucknell, ‘23) and Julie Louisa Hagenbuch, founder of Stories on Tap, to interview, research and compile an exploration of Agnes’ impact on the area. He expects to release the collected interviews and a performance project in 2022 during the 50th anniversary of the hurricane.
“I would like to have a traveling floating circus on the river, performing our stories when we stop at the river towns,” Stuhl said.
The boat would travel down the Susquehanna, stopping to share stories and photos of the flooding. The final stop would be Harrisburg where the study can be presented to elected officials. Stuhl is also planning to put together a mural of the photos he is collecting.
Before that can happen, Stuhl and his team need to interview people who lived through Hurricane Agnes. Another natural disaster has thrown a wrench into this plan.
“COVID has been a challenge and forced us to pivot from how we collect the stories,” Stuhl said.
Finding a way
The business shutdowns and restrictions on face-to-face interactions have made collecting interviews difficult, particularly since the people Stuhl needs to speak with are one of the most at-risk groups for contracting COVID-19.
Some interviews can be conducted over the telephone. The group is also reviewing the stories on an Agnes Flood Documentary Facebook Page focused on the Danville/Bloomsburg area. It has more than 18,000 people following it, and many of them have shared their stories.
Stuhl and his team have also planned a large public storytelling event on Oct. 29. It is still scheduled, despite the pandemic, although it has changed from being a public meeting to a virtual one.
“We are looking for the stories of what people went through, but we also want to learn how people make meaning of their lives and the trauma they went through,” Stuhl said.
Stuhl wants to hear from decision makers, emergency responders and people who lived through the storm and its aftermath.
“A lot of those folks are still alive, and we want to collect their stories,” Stuhl said.
From the Arctic to Pennsylvania
Stuhl is not native to this area of the commonwealth. He moved to Lewisburg in 2013 and became curious about what people simply called “The Flood.” He realized that if a flood was so impactful it didn’t need to be identified by a name or date, he wanted to study those impacts.
“I was born in Philadelphia, but most of my research up until this time has been in the Arctic and about our relationships with that natural world,” Stuhl said.
Hurricane Agnes and its impact on the region spoke to Stuhl’s curiosity, and he started reading news articles about it and talking to people. It piqued his interest and evolved into a new research area.
“I want to explore how Agnes impacted the region, the recovery, insurance coverage, resource management and how rivers work,” Stuhl said.
As part of the project, Stuhl and Fitch interviewed West Milton, Pa., resident Robert Layton. In 1972, at the time of the storm, Layton had just graduated from Lycoming College and was helping set up a dark room/photography lab there. When Agnes hit, he was involved in helping move people and their belongings in Lewisburg to prevent damage. During these efforts, he put his photography skills to use documenting some of the impacts of the storm. Layton still has many of the images, which will be on display this fall at Bucknell University.
Here is an excerpt from the interview:
Robert Layton: “...I know the bridge in Lewisburg, it was about three feet under the bridge when they asked us...we had to...we had to truck across to keep people from venturing out on the bridge because the other side was completely underwater, the Montandon side. We were watching the bridge and we watched boulders roll up off of the river bottom and hit the bridge.
“And buildings [were] coming down and hitting the bridge. That’s how...that’s how close the water was now… Yeah, I grew up on a river in western Pennsylvania; it would flood but … never with the force that this river...this river had… it was incredible ... you would look at it and you think well, gee, that doesn’t look too bad ‘til you see a Volkswagen bobbing down the river or a building coming down and hit the bridge and come out just in splinters. It just had that much force...”
Visit The Stories of Hurricane Agnes to read the complete interview with Robert Layton.
Some information in this article provided by the Union County Historical Society.
James Rada Jr. is a freelance writer based in Gettysburg.
Do you have a story to tell?
If you have a story about Hurricane Agnes to share, or want to learn more about the Agnes Flood project, you can contact Stuhl at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (570) 577-1974.
Stuhl is also looking for pictures from the hurricane and its aftermath. “Local residents are great documentarians. They know the structures and places that are important to their towns,” Stuhl said.