The Susquehanna River makes Middletown extremely susceptible to flood, along with the heavy rains and springtime thaws we get during the changing seasons. Before Hurricane Agnes, Middletown has experienced four major floods including the ice flood of 1904, and regular floods in 1925, 1932, and 1936. As many around the country can testify, Hurricane Agnes was catastrophically dangerous to nearly every location in its path, costing billions in damage. Middletown and the state’s path to recovery was not an easy one that took tenacity and perseverance.
Hurricane Agnes was marked as the worst natural disaster to ever strike Pennsylvania, due to its heavy precipitation and strong winds. The hurricane first started on June 14th, 1972, as a category 1 hurricane that originated in the Caribbean Sea, which quickly developed into a tropical depression the farther it moved Northeast. As it passed through the regions of the Atlantic States and in transition to its final stages, it merged with an extra tropical cyclone that created a storm which stood over Western Pennsylvania for about twenty-four hours. Though the hurricane itself brought great damage, the storm did not reach full hurricane strength again once the rain arrived.The extremely dense precipitation brought on by the tropical storm arrived on June 20th. According to the Middletown Area Historical Society, the storm’s diameter was nearly 1,000 miles long. Between June 16th-25th, the rainfall over the eastern part of the U.S. produced record floods, specifically in Pennsylvania and New York while numerous other locations’ precipitation reached over 15 inches. The Susquehanna River made its own new record among the flooding by having the greatest amount of rainfall since at least 1784; peak flows from Harrisburg to the Chesapeake Bay were greater than 7.5 million gallons per second. On top of the immense flooding caused by Agnes, the hurricane itself caused a major economic loss throughout many of the states, hitting Pennsylvania the hardest. According to ABC27 News, “More than 68,000 homes and 3,000 businesses were destroyed by Agnes. The storm was blamed for 128 deaths and nearly $3 billion in damage. The death toll and damage was highest in Pennsylvania with nearly 50 fatalities and $2 billion in losses.” With all the destruction from the winds and flooding, Pennsylvania, among other locations, suffered tremendous repercussions that were never faced as severely before, giving Hurricane Agnes its notorious fame.
On June 21st, the storm arrived in Middletown. It was hit with four days of continuous heavy rain, thunder, and lightning. Most residents knew from the previous major flood in 1936 that the town would soon be drowning in water due to the river and creek, so everyone began to stockpile supplies and attempt to protect their properties. Unfortunately, the flooding was too great, and many properties became submerged and ruined by the water. A lot of the town had to be rescued from roofs and second-story windows because of the flood waters rapidly rising in height. The residents that were rescued were relocated to a variety of temporary housing in schools, churches, firehalls, and the Capitol Campus (which is where Penn State Harrisburg is currently located). On June 23rd around 10 pm, the river reached its highest level that held until 3pm on June 24th, the next day, when it finally started to subside.
After the flood waters finally went down, Middletown citizens were left with the duty of cleaning the mud off everything. A lot of homes were destroyed during the storm with some having the foundation break while others had been taken completely off their foundation. The flood costed Middletown three of its most essential bridges; two bridges were covered bridges, while the other was an iron bridge. One of the covered bridges was at Fiddler’s Elbow, North Union Street. The second bridge was the Clifton Bridge which was located at the east end of Fulling Mill Road and connected to School House Rd. on the other side. This bridge was never replaced. The shambled Clifton Bridge was washed away into the flood waters and ended up crashing into and destroying the iron bridge called Frey’s Bridge that crossed the Swatara Creek using Vine Street and Swatara Creek Road. Many other places faced flood damage including the Olmsted Plaza Shopping Center, the airport, and the Swatara Park amusement park, which never recovered. The Metropolitan Edison’s Crawford Station failed to function when the turbines became engulfed in the water. To summarize, nearly the entire town was drowned during the flood to some degree.
Luckily, Middletown received many hands of help during the recovery; the Red Cross, fire crewmen, volunteers from the Mennonite Disaster Service, townsfolk who were not affected by the flooding, and many more people all pitched in the effort. Everyone tried to help return the town to normal while in recovery, starting with pumping out cellars and setting up emergency centers with food supplies from the US Army and Army’s Corp of Engineers. In the next phase of recovery, building remnants were taken out, some were being completely rebuilt, and lesser damaged buildings were restored. In regards to those who lost their homes during the flood, HUD (Housing and Urban Development department) supplied the town with trailers that were placed all over to serve as housing until citizens were able to get their homes back. HUD purchased previous properties in the flood plain to rebuild the town and renovate the area and fix the damaged roads. After Middletown had some time to partially rebuild itself, HUD came back to purchase more of the properties in the flood plain to turn into recreational facilities (like Susquehanna Street Park); some citizens willingly sold their property while others were opposed to the idea. Alas, HUD ended up forcibly taking some properties, through forced sales. HUD paid for some homes to be removed and relocated to another area.
Hurricane Agnes was one of Middletown’s worst times in history due to all of the disaster and chaos caused by the strong flooding. Many areas suffered during this great flood, but eventually was able to recover. The Flood of 1972 is an event that will always be remembered in Middletown’s history. Though this flood has been the harshest natural disaster that Pennsylvania has seen, Middletown was able to unite as a community and restore the town back to what it was before, exemplifying one of the town’s most marvelous traits.
Story prepared by: Alexis Jefferson
ABC27. “Hurricane Agnes Stormed through Pennsylvania 45 Years Ago.” ABC27, ABC27, 23 June 2017, 5:37, www.abc27.com/news/hurricane-agnes-stormed-through-pennsylvania-45-years-ago/.
Middletown Area Historical Society. 34th Annual Middletown Colonial Arts & Crafts Fair. Triangle Press, 2009.