40 years ago Tuesday, one of the most destructive storms in Pennsylvania history made landfall in the U.S. Hurricane Agnes wasn't a terribly powerful storm when it hit the Florida coast, but as it made its way up toward Pennsylvania, slow and heavy rains caused flooding and millions of dollars in damages.
One of the areas hardest-hit by the remnants of Hurricane Agnes was Sharpsburg. The small borough north of downtown Pittsburgh sits on the Allegheny River and is near some smaller creeks.
"It was devastating all the way up. It got the back streets. It didn't miss the back streets here in Sharspburg. It went all the way up to past 16th and Middle it came out of the creek, because there's a creek by the borough building. It overflowed the creek. The playground, from what I can remember, was covered," said life-long Sharpsburg resident Sandra Krebbs, who was about 30 at the time of the flood.
Krebbs said her mother-in-law's kitchen was completely flooded and added while people knew a storm was coming, nobody was expecting it to cause the flooding that it did.
"Everybody got hit. I mean they got hit hard. There used to be a little store across from where my mother-in-law lived, Capone's — filled. It was filled with water," she said.
Agnes Was the First Hurricane of the 1972 Season
Agnes was a minimal Category 1 Hurricane when it made landfall in Florida, but as it combined with another low pressure system, it dumped heavy rains over inland areas. Damage from this storm was estimated to be about $2.1 billion total. Pennsylvania was the hardest hit.
Still, for Krebbs' friend, who didn't want to be identified, and another lifelong Sharpsburg resident, Bob Brose, the memories of the 1936 flood were more vivid. Technically the flooding caused by Agnes was more severe — it just didn't seem that way thanks to a reservoir system built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the years following 1936.
"The river crested at the point in Pittsburgh in 1936 at 46 feet. In 1972 it crested at just under 36 feet, and if we reduced it by 12 feet, 12 plus 36 is 48. It would have been two feet higher without our reservoir system," said Werner Loehlein with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Pittsburgh.
"It was a system that was designed as a result of the 1936 flood. The Flood Control Act of 1936 authorized most of the flood mitigation projects we see in the region, and over the next several decades they eventually all or most of them got built, and the system is performing. That doesn't mean we don't have flood problems — we still do, we're still at risk to flooding and we do have occasional large floods," he said.
Loehlein said stopping flooding altogether is impossible unless you can also stop hurricanes, intense thunderstorms and other natural events that cause flooding to occur. The good news is storms like Agnes aren't the norm.
"It was unusual from the standpoint of … these types of systems usually don't stall out over our part of the country. Usually in the northeast, once they move they start moving or they accelerate or they move at some designated speed. This storm just crawled," said Harvey Thurm, meteorologist for the Hurricane program for the National Weather Service Eastern Division.
Thurm said Agnes stalled out and had a tremendous amount of tropical moisture and rained itself out over the region, after spurring tornadoes and storm surges in Florida. Agnes doesn't get the attention of other big storms of the past, but Thurm said the storm was nothing to sneeze at.
"It was the number one disaster of its time. It's since been exceeded by some of the bigger storms like Andrew in 1992 and Katrina down in the Gulf Coast states, but if you were to extrapolate the amount of damage it caused in 1972 dollars to 2012 dollars, it's up there in the top 10 in terms of all-time storms," he said.
Back in Sharpsburg, Sandra Krebbs told her friend about what it was like to be there as flood waters rose. "I think I was pregnant with Shannon. I was pregnant with Shannon and I was scared to death that I would go into labor and couldn't get out," she said.
And of course, after the flood, residents were left with the mess created by the water.
"Oh the cleanup … you wouldn't believe the stuff that was thrown, there was just mud everywhere. It took … it wasn't done, it wasn't cleaned up in a month, it took a while to clean up. Everything was just … it was just totaled," said Krebbs.
Agnes killed 122 people in its path, and caused flooding damage across the state and region. Pittsburgh's point was underwater due to flooding and the governor's mansion in Harrisburg was hit and had to be evacuated. Then-President Richard Nixon declared Florida, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York major disaster areas. Still, the Army Corps of Engineers said it could have been much worse. District reservoirs prevented more than $8 million in damages.