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Wilkes-Barre waits as levee system put to test

Written by: Staff

WILKES-BARRE, Pa., June 29 (Reuters) Wilkes-Barre residents waited anxiously today to learn if protective levees would withstand rising floodwaters that threaten to swamp the historic town.

Waters crested at more than 34 feet along the flood protection system yesterday evening and were expected to peak as high as 37 feet early today after the region of some 200,000 people was pounded by days of torrential rain.

The levees restraining the Susquehanna River from overwhelming the town nicknamed ''The Diamond City'' in the 1800s for its coal riches were last reinforced in 2004.

James Brozena, county engineer for Luzerne County, told Reuters what waters could remain at heights above 30 feet through early tomorrow but insisted the system could withstand such intense pressure ''for as long as it takes.'' ''We are very optimistic. We always have had complete confidence in the Corps of Engineers,'' he said, referring to the US Army Corps of Engineers, which built the levees. ''They are some of the best designers of flood control systems in the world.'' The Corps was roundly criticized after New Orleans' levees broke in the aftermath of Katrina, flooding 80 per cent of the city and killing over 1,800 people on the U S Gulf Coast.

Brozena said the Wilkes-Barre system was more modern and less volnerable than the New Orleans flood walls.

Still, the latest storm pushed water higher than at any time since the levees were strengthened and raised in 1972 when the Susquehanna overflowed, swelled by storms whipped up by rain from Hurricane Agnes, and killed six people.

In Wilkes-Barre, up to 200,000 people were ordered to evacuate and officials said as many as 150,000 had left the area by sundown yesterday.

Earlier, the Coast Guard used helicopters to rescue up to 70 people stranded on rooftops, local authorities said.

WIDESPREAD FLOODING Days of torrential rain followed by floods had killed at least 16 people in the eastern United States by late yesterday. With buildings submerged, roads washed out and rivers surging, authorities declared emergencies and ordered evacuations across swaths of New Jersey, New York, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

A map posted by the National Weather Service showed flood warnings spread over 40,000 square miles of the United States, an area roughly the size of the state of Kentucky or the country of Iceland.

Brian Hughes, county executive of Mercer County, New Jersey, which includes the state capital, Trenton, where a mandatory evacuation was ordered for part of the city, said, ''This is going to be the largest flood we've had maybe since 1955.'' REUTERS SY BST1000

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