September 08, 2011

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By Julia Ferrante

September 8, 2100 flooding

LEWISBURG, Pa. - Bucknell President John Bravman took the unusual step of closing the University Thursday morning as creeks on campus and in downtown Lewisburg overflowed their banks and the Susquehanna River threatened to reach its highest level in as many as three decades. || See campus announcement.

As Lewisburg Borough officials ordered evacuations of flood-prone areas south of Market Street and east of Seventh Street as early as 5 a.m., University officials arranged to move students living in those areas and in low-lying residence halls to higher ground. Lewisburg Borough Police Department announced a curfew would be enforced in flood-prone areas from 7 p.m. Thursday to 7 a.m. Saturday. Anyone violating the curfew may face a fine.

"Our utmost concern is the safety of our students, faculty and staff," Bravman said. "This is a serious flood situation, and it is impacting the lives of students, faculty and staff who live downtown and many colleagues in a wide nearby area. I'm proud of the way everyone on campus has responded, and we're doing our best to stay on top of the situation and adjust as conditions change.

"I want to commend especially the staff members who worked on numerous aspects of campus life to make the situation as normal as possible for our students and to keep the campus safe and informed. We urge everyone to continue to take every precaution to keep themselves and their families safe."

By Thursday afternoon, 500 students living off campus and 600 from Vedder, Harris and Larison halls were packing pillows and essential belongings to move to the field house, where mattresses were being laid. Those buildings were threatened by possible flooding in their basements, where the buildings' electrical panels are. Administrators were considering moving an additional 17 students from the basement of Hunt Hall as a precaution. Students displaced from downtown homes, including 10 people living in three houses that were condemned by borough officials, were relocated to on-campus housing.

Dining halls were operating on a normal schedule, and both Bertrand Library, the field house, and the Elaine Langone Center were to remain open around the clock until at least Saturday, said Dean of Students Susan Lantz. The Kenneth Langone Athletics and Recreation Center also was slated to be open until 11 p.m. Free pizza and ice cream would be served and the movie, "The First Grader," would be shown Thursday night. Students in need of clothing and other supplies should report to the field house for assistance.

Lending a hand

While some students took the opportunity to catch up on homework, others, including members of the Chi Phi and Theta Chi fraternities, helped downtown residents move their belongings, Lantz said. Other students helped with animal rescue and assisted the Red Cross with providing meals to those displaced by the floods. Students interested in helping out should contact the Office of Civic Engagement.

Senior Karel Parve, an international relations major who is living at Fran's House, a gender neutral community at the corner of Sixth and St. George streets, woke up to the sound of an evacuation alarm at about 5 a.m. Borough fire department officials called Parve and his housemates about an hour later, telling them they would need to leave. The water had reached Saint Catharine Street.

"I am on the second floor, thank goodness," he said. "I just grabbed my laptop and some homework because I thought I might be able to go back tonight, but now I am not sure about that. We are hanging out at Arches Lounge. The University has been really nice telling us we can stay wherever we are comfortable."

Senior Ben Brenner, an English and management major, stayed with a friend Wednesday night anticipating the Sixth Street home he is renting might be inaccessible by morning. He moved his essential belongings from his first-floor room to the second floor and took his cell phone and car keys with him.

"Yesterday at 3 p.m. when I was walking to the gym, the water was two feet below the flood wall behind my house," Brenner said. "When I came back, Sixth Street was entirely flooded."

Geology Professor Craig Kochel, who spent Thursday alternating between bailing out his basement in Mifflinburg and working with students to collect sediment samples from local streams, said the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee and a lingering cold front created the right conditions for one of the top 10 flooding events in Lewisburg borough history.

Kochel, who measured more than 7 inches of rain at a gauge at home, said the flooding, although serious, provided a rare hands-on teaching opportunity.

"We were out Wednesday collecting samples in Williamsport," Kochel said. "The water was clear, indicating everything is saturated. It is very unusual for it to rain over the whole Susquehanna watershed. The fact that it followed several days of rain and a wet August magnified this flood."

Because the ground was so wet, there are few places for new water to go, Kochel said. Bull Run and Miller Run creeks, for instance, which run through campus and downtown, had overflowed their banks by Wednesday afternoon, and several roads, including portions of Route 15 and Interstate 80, were closed. The Susquehanna River was poised to crest shortly after midnight Friday, at about 27.6 feet, although that prediction could change. Initially, forecasters were predicting it could reach 30 feet.

During Hurricane Agnes in June 1972, by comparison, the Susquehanna Valley received 16 inches of rain, and the river reached 34.23 feet, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website. During a similar event in June 1889, the river reached 29.8 feet. And in 1975, during Hurricane Eloise, the river reached 27.62 feet. Other significant flooding occurred in 1996 with a major snow melt, and after the remnants of Hurricane Ivan passed through in 2004.

"This is a common time to get a tropical storm," Kochel said. "This one came up through Mississippi, Kentucky and Ohio then hit a cold front. Hurricane Katia is sitting out there in the Atlantic, keeping Lee and the cold front from moving to the east."

Professor Emeritus of Education Russell Dennis, who taught a class on Bucknell history, said water covered sections of Routes 15 and 45 during Agnes and came up almost to the top of Zelda's Café on Seventh Street. The Civil War monument on Third Street was covered with water.

Bucknell General Counsel Wayne Bromfield, who was a law student living in Lewisburg in 1972 said the flood that year came as a "major shock" to residents as the first such event in 36 years.

"The entire borough was much less prepared for high water then, as the emergency systems were not in place," Bromfield said. "Three people died in the evacuation, including one person in an evacuation attempt from a house near where the Towne Tavern is now. Another woman died in her basement after the walls collapsed around her because of the water pressure."

Bromfield and his father, who walked to town to help friends move belongings onto a higher floor of their house, became stranded and had to stay in town with friends for two days, he said.

"Lewisburg was an island," he said. "One of the differences now is we have so many more alerts in place. People are still surprised by the amount of water. Students who have no history of what can happen in a flood are in the most jeopardy. They don't have the same fear or knowledge of how water can become dangerous quickly."

The University will continue to keep the campus advised through e-mail and this website, as necessary. You can also follow updates through the Bucknell Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Senior Writer Christina Wallace contributed to this report.

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Contact: Division of Communications