Saturday, August 6, 2022

The Day of the Cemetery Flood – 50 Years Ago


Well, its been 50 years this year, 2022, since Hurricane Agnes caused a massive flood in my hometown near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The swollen Susquehanna River broke through the dike in Forty-Fort, PA, and gutted the Forty-Fort Cemetery on June 23, 1972. My parents, along with my younger brother and sister, lived a few miles from there. Our house was flooded to the second floor. The flood level was officially recorded as sixteen feet. Imagine that.

I always think of death in the summer – as well as during the other seasons of course – but especially in the summer, because of what I saw in this cemetery. 


Sometime in July, 1972, maybe during the second week, the National Guard allowed us, along with thousands of other residents, back to our homes, to begin the cleanup. This was after then President Richard Nixon famously choppered over the devastation, which resulted in millions of dollars of disaster relief aid. You can read all about those trying times in the links at the end. A cinematographer has created a new video documentary called “Agnes 50th Anniversary,” a 90-minute film, which premiered at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre on June 23, 2022 – the fiftieth anniversary of the day of the flood. (DVD can be purchased at this link: https://www.wbpreservation.org/store/p/agnes-50th-anniversary-documentary-dvd”)

At the time, the Hurricane Agnes flood was considered the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Though like the Hurricane Katrina flood of New Orleans in 2005, it was really a disaster exacerbated by poor engineering. Yes, the hurricanes started the process, but it was the flood control systems built by humans that failed. In 1972, Wilkes-Barre, in the Wyoming Valley of northeast Pennsylvania, was the hardest hit of all areas affected on the east coast. I’ve not seen the new documentary yet, but it no doubt avoids the cemetery carnage. That part of the story is not for the faint of heart. Books and photographs rarely depict any detail of it, but you can see some photos on the blog I posted in 2020, “Corpse Recovery and Cadaver Bags” (link at end).

It is true that the living were more concerned about their own plight, that of the living, than about the dead, during that disaster - at least at the time we all had to evacuate. But after it was made public that Forty-Fort Cemetery had been decimated, I would imagine that many people who had loved ones buried there were crushed. Did they go to the cemetery after the flood waters receded to see the devastation? Did they want to know – and see – that their family plot had been spared? What of then recent burials like the one below? They wouldn't know until the day break, and the shadows flee.

For many weeks – maybe months – after the waters went down, sheets of plywood blocked the view of the cemetery from the roadway. Behind that barricade, the Army Corps of Engineers filled in the chasm left by the raging Susquehanna River. Whatever grave markers were left in that area of 2,500 unearthed burials were likely buried. THOUSANDS of bodies and coffins that were torn out of Forty-Fort Cemetery and deposited in various locations throughout the region had to be collected. This was done, for the most part, before the public was allowed back into the many affected cities and towns – Wilkes-Barre, Kingston, Forty-Fort, Plymouth, Nanticoke, Swoyersville, and so on. There were coffins lodged on peoples’ porches.

If any of my readers were involved in the cemetery cleanup and reinterment at Memorial Shrine Cemetery in Carverton, PA, please get in touch. I’d like to hear your story (I can be reached privately at mourningarts@yahoo.com). 

Forty-Fort Cemetery office, Forty-Fort, PA.

Four acres of land (including burials) were torn from the center of Forty-Fort Cemetery and washed away. The chasm was about ten feet deep. I doubt anyone was around at the time to see this occur. Supposedly before the dike broke apart, the caretaker was wading through knee-deep water carrying books of burial records from the office to somewhere safe. There were people sandbagging on the dike (myself and my father included), but we all ran when the flood waters started shooting out of the storm drains in the streets. As the river rose over the dike, the dike gave way. Think about the Led Zeppelin song, “When the Levee Breaks” and think about what occurred in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (which occurred in August of that year).  

Cenotaph inscription
“Cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good

No, cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good

When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move …” 

- From the Led Zeppelin song, “When the Levee Breaks

Sometime toward the end of July, I believe, my cousin Albert and I explored the gutted cemetery (we slithered under the plywood in a washed out area). You can read about what we saw in the introduction to my book, “The Cemetery Traveler.” I won’t go into those details here, but suffice it to say that you don’t want to read that right before bedtime. In the photo below, you can see the area of fence at the Wyoming Avenue side of the cemetery under which we gained access. (You may purchase the book from Amazon, if you are interested: https://www.amazon.com/Cemetery-Traveler-Selections-blog/dp/1717885950)


Fence we climbed under, on Wyoming Ave.
Albert died on November 15, 2021. He was 64. We grew up together and I do regret not discussing these events with him later in his life. Different people have different ways of looking at things and I should have asked his perspective on our experience. During and after the flood, my family stayed for several weeks with his family, on the high ground outside the flood zone. While this was all going on, my closest friend George, who lived a few blocks from us, was having his own adventures with his family. George wrote me recently suggesting that I ask him about what he went through the day the flood hit. Maybe I never knew this. It dawned on me, that of course each and every one of the thousands of people who were displaced and affected by the flood had their own unique story. I am looking forward to hearing his soon.

August was spent clearing out the house, trying to figure out how to move forward, and not really wanting to begin my freshman year in high school at a new school. It’s August now, fifty years later. Its surprising how one can remember details of events this long after.

I visited my Mom and brother a few weeks ago, they both still live in the area, Kingston, PA, in an apartment building that was built in the flood zone, after the flood. Yes, people rebuilt and moved right back into the previously flooded areas. How much prescience was involved in THOSE decisions is a mystery. My parents fixed their house up as best they could and then sold it. We moved to higher ground. 

Memorial to the displaced, in Forty-Fort Cemetery

In the photo above, you can see the rebuilt green grassy dike in the background, keeping the river out of the Forty-Fort Cemetery. You can see a faint blue horizontal line following the top of the dike – this line is the tops of vertical steel piles that were driven into the ground through the miles of dike to provide support and additional height. That process took years. I took a drive and a walk through the Forty-Fort Cemetery, retracing the steps my cousin Albert and I took as we walked through it after the waters had receded. At left you see the tree that I refer to in the introduction to my book - the tree that had that object propped against. A woman who introduced herself as the caretaker of the property was busy cutting back bushes around gravestones. She obviously took great pride in her work. She didn’t look quite old enough to have been alive in 1972, so I just told her that I lived in the area back then and stopped by to visit.

Fifty people died in that flood in Pennsylvania alone (neighboring states were also affected), and 220,000 PA homes were flooded, including those of my parents, grandmother, and school friends. As I write this at the beginning of August, 2022, I’m listening to a radio interview with a victim of current flooding in Tennessee, in which 25 people died. He said something that struck me: “When the flood comes, there’s no talkin’ to it.” Having lived through such a catastrophe, I know what he means. There’s no stopping it. Whenever I hear about a flood somewhere, I know firsthand what those people went through. 

Cenotaph with dike in background - the Susquehanna River flows beyond

Humans can pretend they’re in control, but nature knows better. The cenotaph monument on the circular platform in the center of Forty-Fort Cemetery is a stark reminder of nature’s force. It commemorates the rude disinterments of those 2,500 bodies in 1972. What is now an unadorned grassy field, was once acres of graves and grave markers of all types. Now they’re gone. I imagine the markers that had not been washed away were simply buried here. The bodies and other remains were moved to a mass grave, miles away on much higher ground.

Further Reading:

My last blog about Forty-Fort Cemetery: https://thecemeterytraveler.blogspot.com/2020/06/corpse-recovery-and-cadaver-bags-after.html

https://www.fema.gov/press-release/20220607/reflecting-hurricane-agnes-50-years-later 

Ed Snyder's book, "The Cemetery Traveler:" https://www.amazon.com/Cemetery-Traveler-Selections-blog/dp/1717885950

Agnes 50th Anniversary Documentary DVD — Wilkes-Barré Preservation Society (wbpreservation.org):

https://www.wvia.org/tv/agnes-50/

Tennessee Flooding, July 2022 https://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2022/07/31/Drenching-downpours-renew-flood-threat/9821659287913/

https://www.nucorskyline.com/globalnav/applications/levees-storm-protection

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