- Associated Press - Thursday, September 8, 2011

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (AP) — Almost 100,000 people from New York to Maryland were ordered to flee the rising Susquehanna River on Thursday as the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee dumped more rain across the Northeast, closing major highways and socking areas still recovering from Hurricane Irene.

At Binghamton, N.Y., the wide river broke a flood record and flowed over retaining walls downtown as more than 8 inches of rain fell in some areas. Road closures effectively sealed the city off to outside traffic as emergency responders scrambled to evacuate holdouts who didn’t heed warnings to leave neighborhoods.

“It’s going to get worse,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who urged residents to heed evacuation orders rather than wait until the flood danger is obvious.

“By the time it looks that bad, you won’t be able to leave, so leave and leave now,” he said.

Most of the people ordered to evacuate their homes were about 80 miles downstream in Wilkes-Barre, where the river was projected to crest later Thursday at 41 feet — the same height as the levee system, officials said. Residents were ordered to leave by 4 p.m.

In Port Deposit, Md., rising water levels at the Conowingo Dam forced officials to open the floodgates and order the evacuation of most of the Susquehanna River town’s 1,000 residents.

There was also flooding upstream from Binghamton in Oneonta, N.Y., where dozens of evacuees sought help at a church center.

“By seven o’clock (Thursday morning), we got a knock on our door saying we had to leave,” said Kevin Olmstead, a cab driver who had to leave with his fiancee, 10-year-old daughter and other relatives so quickly that he only had clothes, a cellphone and an iPad. “We actually had to tread through the water to get out.”

Evacuation orders were issued Wednesday to some 20,000 people in Binghamton and neighboring communities along the Susquehanna. More than 70,000 residents in Wilkes-Barre and Kingston were told to leave. So were people in about 170 homes about 90 miles downstream in Harrisburg, where crews put sandbags around the governor’s mansion.

Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton said residents should prepare for an evacuation of 72 hours and advised them to take clothing, food and prescription medicine. He also asked city businesses to close their doors by noon.

Water levels along much of the Susquehanna were expected to be at their highest since 1972, when Hurricane Agnes devastated the river basin.

At least nine deaths have been blamed on the storm that hit the Gulf Coast last week as Tropical Storm Lee and has slogged northward ever since. Four people died in central Pennsylvania, one was killed in Maryland, and four others died earlier when Lee hit the South.

Roads and highways closed around the Northeast, including sections of New York’s Interstate 88, which follows the Susquehanna’s path. In Philadelphia, flooding and a rock slide closed the eastbound lanes of the Schuylkill Expressway, a major artery into the city, and it could take hours for the road to reopen.

New York’s Thruway Authority expected to close a 105-mile stretch of its busiest east-west highway, Interstate 90, because the nearby Mohawk River had overflowed its banks in some areas.

Wet weather followed by Hurricane Irene and its remnants have saturated the soil across the Northeast, leaving water no place to go but into already swollen creeks and rivers. Some areas hit by the latest storm still were feeling Irene’s effects: A shelter in Paterson, N.J., still had Irene evacuees.

After three days of living in shelters because of Irene, Edith Rodriguez, her mother and her sister spent Wednesday night at a high school outside Schenectady, N.Y., when the latest storm chased them from their home near the Mohawk River.

“We just finished cleaning up after the flood from Irene,” Ms. Rodriguez, 19, said. “Now we have to start all over again.”

The National Weather Service predicted 4 to 10 inches of rain across the mid-Atlantic and Northeast through Thursday. Flood watches and warnings were in effect from Maryland to New England.

The service said the river level in Binghamton was above 25 feet, higher than the record set in 2006 and more than 11 feet above flood stage. It’s expected to rise another foot or so.

In New Jersey, where many residents were still cleaning up after Irene, the remnants of Lee were expected to drop anywhere from 2 to 5 inches of rain. There was some flooding along rivers including the Passaic, which breached its banks during Irene and caused serious damage. Heavier flooding is expected Thursday.

Flash flooding shut down roads and closed schools in many parts of Pennsylvania. A bridge spanning the Delaware River between New Hope, Pa., and Lambertville, N.J., closed Thursday morning as flood waters carried debris downriver.

A flood watch was in effect through Thursday afternoon in soggy Vermont, but officials on Thursday said that rain had caused only minor problems in the state. Parts of the state still are recovering from flooding from the remnants of Irene, which was a tropical storm by the time it swept over the area.

In New York, Prattsville was cut off on Wednesday afternoon, its main roads covered with water as public works crews tried to dredge the creeks to alleviate the flooding. Trash bins stood in the mud-caked streets to collect debris left by Irene, and the wreckage of houses destroyed by the earlier storm still dotted the area.

Residents were ready to evacuate as the Schoharie Creek escaped its banks and smaller streams showed significant flooding. In nearby Middleburgh, dozens of residents were evacuated from temporary shelters set up in schools, many for the third time since Irene hit.

Meanwhile, in the open Atlantic, Hurricane Katia brought rough surf to the East Coast but was not expected to make landfall in the U.S. Tropical Storm Maria also formed Wednesday far out in the Atlantic, but it was too soon to tell if and where it might make landfall.

Michael Hill reported from Oneonta, N.Y. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Mark Scolforo in Hershey, Pa.; Randy Pennell in Philadelphia; Chris Carola and Rik Stevens in Albany, N.Y.; and Jim Fitzgerald in White Plains, N.Y.

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