WEST PITTSTON — After a massive ice jam caused flooding throughout West Pittston on Wednesday, a voluntary evacuation order turned into a mandatory one for flooded areas.
Areas between the Susquehanna River and Second Street, Excelsior Street, Blackman Street and Lacoe Street were being asked to voluntary evacuate up until about 8 p.m.
It was then that West Pittston Police posted the mandatory evacuation order on its Facebook page.
The nearest evacuation center was listed as the cafeteria at the Wyoming Area Secondary Center on Memorial Street in Exeter.
Bill Goldsworthy, executive director of the Northeast Pennsylvania Red Cross, said any residents evacuating should bring necessities with them to the shelter, such as medications.
County EMA director Lucy Morgan said her agency will continue to monitor the river all night, and keep relaying information from the National Weather Service to riverside municipalities.
“We’re in constant contact,” she said.
Another press briefing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday.
Shot up fast
Earlier in the day, curious borough residents walked down closed side streets, coming to a dead stop to see a flooded Susquehanna Avenue.
The situation grew worse during the day as borough officials requested a voluntary evacuation of residents along Susquehanna Avenue. A mandatory curfew was also put into effect at 9 p.m.
Police officers kept moving residents off flooded streets later in the evening, only allowing homeowners back down their streets.
Evacuation efforts intensified later in the afternoon as the river continued to rise.
The river shot up nearly 10 feet Tuesday night into Wednesday, leading the National Weather Service in Binghamton, New York, to issue a flood warning for low-lying areas.
According to the National Weather Service, the river was at 22.83 feet and rising as of 8:45 p.m. Wednesday in Wilkes-Barre. The levee that protects the city offers protection to 41 feet. The river was expected to crest at 23 feet at 1 a.m. Thursday.
But the ice jam is making the river forecast difficult as exact river levels are unpredictable and can vary by several feet in any given moment, according to the NWS.
Such as the case in West Pittston.
Under high-water situations without ice, Susquehanna Avenue begins to flood when the river reaches 28 to 29 feet.
As the river in Wilkes-Barre topped 20 feet just before 9 a.m. Wednesday, the ice jam caused the river level in West Pittston to flood Susquehanna Avenue.
Due to the ice jam flooding, students were dismissed early Wednesday in the Wyoming Area School District in Exeter, Wyoming Area Catholic in West Pittston and Holy Rosary in Duryea.
Water Street Bridge linking West Pittston and Pittston was closed to traffic at about 12:30 p.m. The Fort Jenkins Bridge remained open at that point but closed later in the day.
“Since last night, the river probably rose 10 to 12 feet,” said Susquehanna Avenue resident James McGrath.
Asked if he is worried about his home, McGrath stated: “No, but my insurance broker hasn’t slept.”
McGrath’s home — as most of West Pittston, which is not protected by a levee — was inundated in the September 2011 flood. Most utilities, such as the hot water heater and electrical panel, were moved to McGrath’s second floor.
“I’m powerless, nothing I could really do,” McGrath said. ‘If you live here and live by the river, that’s a reality. Once it goes above 35 to 36 feet, that’s when the damage happens to my first floor.”
McGrath said he has seen smaller ice jams on the Susquehanna River but the current jam is the largest he’s ever observed.
People were removing safes, furniture and clothing from a few houses along Susquehanna Avenue on Wednesday night.
At a news conference at the county’s EMA building, Morgan said officials have been monitoring river levels upstream from West Pittston.
“Be vigilant, it could change in a heartbeat,” Morgan said of river levels.
The ice jam also caused minor flooding at Riverfront Park in Pittston and low-lying areas in Duryea and Exeter.
The river has not risen above 22 feet since Sept. 9, 2011, when it reached a record crest of 42.66 feet during the Lee storm.
Wilkes-Barre Fire Chief Jay Delaney said officials have been monitoring the ice jam for about three weeks along with Luzerne County Emergency Management. Delaney said an ice jam in Wyoming County broke free during a recent warm spell and flowed downriver at about the same time 1 to 2 inches of rain fell Monday night into Tuesday.
“We just have to deal with it,” Delaney said, noting Nesbitt Park has been closed for nearly three weeks due to the jam.
Protection past 40 feet
Levees protect most of the Wyoming Valley to a river level of 41 feet.
The river is mostly covered with ice from just south of West Nanticoke to the Wyoming County line, a distance of about 10 miles.
The Luzerne County Flood Authority reported all 13 pump stations within the flood protection system have been activated to control possible interior flooding. It is not likely the authority will install floodwalls on the Market and Pierce street bridges or at River Front Park in Wilkes-Barre.
Meanwhile, York Avenue in Avoca reopened late Tuesday after an ice jam on Mill Creek flooded the roadway, a tavern and six houses. Flooding kept Coxton Road in Duryea closed for the second straight day. And in a Facebook post Wednesday evening, Duryea officials announced that Swamp Road would be closed.