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Flooding subsides, residents return home

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. -- Northern stretches of the swollen Susquehanna River began receding Friday after days of rainfall from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee flooded communities from Virginia to New York, leading to evacuation orders for nearly 100,000 people. Some evacuees were allowed back home.

The damage was concentrated along the Susquehanna in Binghamton; in towns up and downriver from levee-protected Wilkes-Barre, where more than 70,000 people were told to evacuate; and communities farther downstream in Maryland.

The Susquehanna crested at 42.66 feet Thursday night in Wilkes-Barre -- beyond the design capacity of the city's levee system and higher than the record set in historic flooding spawned by Hurricane Agnes in 1972.

"They did what was right for them, the people down there," said Tom Vaxmonsky, a resident of West Pittston, just upstream from Wilkes-Barre. "But it's like everything else, for every action there's a reaction. And the reaction is that we got a lot more water than we did in '72 with the Agnes flood."

As floodwaters that inundated the city of Binghamton, which the mayor called the worst in more than 60 years, and surrounding communities began subsiding, the first of the 20,000 evacuees began returning to their homes.

Robert Smith, 35, made it back around noon to his home in Binghamton. Mud and debris covered pavement, and water still blocked streets closest to the river. But he felt inspired by the time he spent in a shelter; when a woman collapsed on the floor there, he said, strangers rushed to tend to her.

"Everybody was helping each other out, just total strangers," he said. "You've never seen it before in your life."

The flooding was fed by days of drenching rains from what had been Tropical Storm Lee, and followed by a little more than a week the dousing that Hurricane Irene gave the East Coast. In some areas of Pennsylvania, the rainfall totals hit 9 inches or more, on top of what was already a relatively wet summer.

Authorities in Pennsylvania closed countless roads, including some heavily traveled interstates, and evacuation shelters opened to serve the many displaced people.

In Wilkes-Barre, officials said the levees holding back the Susquehanna were under "extreme stress" but holding.

A broken flood gauge had hampered officials' ability to measure the river's height, but the U.S. Geological Survey on Friday estimated that the river had crested at 42.66 feet, higher than the 1972 record of 40.9 feet.

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