WILKES-BARRE — As quickly as the Susquehanna River flooded residential streets in West Pittston on Wednesday, the water receded just as fast when an ice jam that formed near the Eighth Street Bridge finally broke.
Barry Hosier, West Pittston emergency management coordinator, estimated the river reached 35 feet in the borough despite the river gauge in Wilkes-Barre showing just a 22- to 23-foot level.
Hosier said the river crested that high because Montgomery Avenue in West Pittston floods at 35 feet.
“Originally, we were planning for a 33-foot event but as the river kept rising, we changed our plans to plan for a 38-foot event. That was the reason for the mandatory evacuation,” Hosier said.
“We know the river reached 35 feet because of the mapping,” Hosier added. “Thank God for Jim Brozena who supplied us with maps and information.”
Brozena is the former executive director for the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority.
Hosier and Luzerne County Emergency Management Director Lucy Morgan at a Thursday news conference said: “We dodged a bullet.”
“The ice jam broke lose (late Wednesday night) releasing ice downstream and causing the river level to fall,” Morgan said. “We’re looking good. We talked to all the municipalities that might have been affected (on Wednesday). There is little ice on the river but not too much.”
When the ice jam broke, it sent a rush of water downstream to the gauge on the Veterans Memorial Bridge in Wilkes-Barre.
“We did have a little scare (Wednesday night) when the Wilkes-Barre gauge did spike up to 27 feet but that was for a few moments when the ice jam broke and the river came free,” said Christopher Belleman, flood protection authority executive director.
Belleman said with the river receding, the process has begun to deactivate pumping stations along the flood protection system. Pumping stations pump water into the river to prevent or minimize interior flooding.
Hosier said he was contacted by West Pittston police at about 6 a.m. Wednesday, indicating there were no issues with the river. About one hour later, Hosier said the river began flooding Susquehanna Avenue.
“I got that call at 7 a.m. (Wednesday), and it was on Susquehanna Avenue. It didn’t go, 28, 29, or 30 feet. It went to 33 then 35 feet,” Hosier said. “It just came right into town. It was very unpredictable with this ice.”
The ice jam made the river forecast difficult as exact river levels were unpredictable and varied by several feet in any given moment, according to the National Weather Service in Binghamton, New York.
Hosier said the mandatory evacuation was ordered because it would not have been safe for first responders to go into ice-clogged floodwaters.
“We dodged a bullet big time,” Hosier said again. “We planned safety first for everyone.”
Dave Skutnik, director of communications for the American Red Cross, said eight people from West Pittston took refuge at a shelter set up in the cafeteria at Wyoming Area Secondary Center, and one person took shelter at Sacred Heart Church in Duryea.
Morgan said upstream of the river is free of any ice jams.
The Fort Jenkins Bridge reopened Thursday morning but the Water Street Bridge will remain closed.
Hosier said the Water Street Bridge, which is county owned, will need to be inspected.
“That bridge took a beating,” he said.