Forty years ago, on June 17, 1972, an attempted burglary--the second in a month--of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington was carried out by agents of the Nixon Administration. It was an elaborate scheme which would ultimately result in President Nixon’s resignation.
Just as the Watergate scandal was unfolding, residents of the mid-Atlantic and Northeast would have to deal with a tropical system that had formed over the Yucatan Peninsula on June 14. That system, dubbed Agnes, would later cause some of the worst flooding ever recorded in the region’s history, particularly Pennsylvania.
As the Watergate story began to captivate the rest of the country, East Coast residents quickly, if only temporarily, diverted their attention southward, as the developing storm hit the Florida Panhandle and continued northeastward, but weakening in the process. Subsequently, after interacting with an extratropical trough over eastern North Carolina, Agnes was re-energized and continued northeastward, before looping back toward New York City.
All the while (June 20-24, 1972), very heavy rainfall was flooding parts of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York State. Damages from the deluge, by some accounts, was ultimately calculated at $3.1 billion which, at the time, made Agnes the costliest hurricane ever to strike the United States. This, despite the fact that it was never more than a minimal Category 1 storm (winds of 74-95 mph) and that even when it made its first U.S. landfall (in Florida) as a hurricane, no hurricane-force winds were officially reported.
Again, Agnes’s big story was one of prolific rainfall and associated death and destruction, especially in Pennsylvania. But Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. were not exactly spared either, as most of us know who were living here at the time. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Hurricane/Tropical Storm Agnes “produced about 14 inches of rain within 3 days in our area. [Thirty-four lives were lost throughout Virginia, D.C., and Maryland] and 103 dwellings were destroyed. Damage to roads and bridges was extensive. Many crops were destroyed through erosion or sediment deposition….and decreased salinity in [the] Chesapeake Bay severely damaged the oyster industry.”
More specifically, as the storm tore through the mid-Atlantic, the DC area experienced severe river flooding on the Potomac and Rappahannock basins. At Wisconsin Avenue in northwest DC, it was [officially] the third worst flood in 100 years of record-keeping, as the Potomac crested 15.5 feet above flood stage there, but 2.3 feet below the record flood of October, 1942. At Little Falls, the crest was 10 feet above flood stage, about 3 feet below the record flood of March 1936. “Numerous homes in the Seneca area were badly damaged, as were recreational facilities along the river. While the flood in the Washington area was not disastrous, it caused fairly heavy damage to both private and public property,” said the National Weather Service.
As the Capital Weather Gang reported on August 25, 2011, “the most tragic aspect of this event in the Washington area was the loss of sixteen people who were swept to their deaths in the swirling floodwaters. Most of these drownings involved motorists that were trapped in automobiles.”
Maryland/D.C./Virginia rainfall totals
Officially, a relatively modest storm total of 8.16 inches of rain fell at Reagan National Airport (DCA) during the period ending on June 22, 1972. However, rainfall was much heavier at other nearby locations, particularly to the west, as Dulles International Airport (IAD) recorded 13.65 inches (5.74 inches in one 6-hour period). For the month, DCA recorded 11.53 inches and Dulles 18.19 inches, far above the normals of 3.78 and 3.98 inches, respectively!
In Pennsylvania, Hurricane “Agony,” as it was called there by then Governor Milton Shapp, dealt a devastating blow, at one point causing the Susquehanna River to rise so high that the governor was forced to evacuate his Harrisburg mansion. Forty-eight deaths—more than any other state--were ultimately reported in the Keystone State and property damage was extensive, approximating $2.1 billion, two thirds of the entire East Coast toll. This included 68,000 homes and 3,000 businesses destroyed by fire or flood. In addition, 220,000 Pennsylvanians were left homeless.
By most accounts, the scope of the above devastation places Hurricane Agnes at the top of Pennsylvania’s worst natural disasters, even though it did not cause the most deaths. The two deadliest, both of which occurred on May 31, were the Johnstown Flood of 1889 (2200+ fatalities) and the Great Pennsylvania Tornado of 1985 (65 fatalities).
As reported by USA Today on Agnes’s 30th anniversary in 2002:
Flooding forced whole towns to evacuate, including residents of Watsontown, a Susquehanna river town in Northumberland County. When people woke up on June 22 to the sirens of fire engines, many roads were already flooded and blocked off by police. Upriver in the hard-hit Wyoming Valley, rushing water tore out a section of a cemetery in Forty Fort, near Wilkes-Barre, and washed away about 2,000 caskets, leaving body parts on back porches, roofs, and basement floors.
Its printing press nearly submerged and offices flooded, Harrisburg’s morning newspaper, The Patriot, did not publish on June 23 for the first time since it opened in 1854, said Dale Davenport, the editorial page editor of what is now The Patriot-News.
Agnes’ place in history
Hurricane Agnes was the first (named) tropical storm of the 1972 hurricane season*, which should probably serve as a warning for the 2012 season: though a “near normal” hurricane season is predicted by NOAA and an average to below average one by the Weather Channel, Accuweather, Colorado State, and WeatherBell, it takes only one, of course, to wreak havoc--and we’ve already had three. (The 1981-2010 30-year hurricane season [June 1 to November 30] average is 12.1 named storms, 6.4 hurricanes, and 2.7 major hurricanes.)
Interestingly, in a story (“Washington’s Worst Floods”) posted on May 6, 2011 by WTOP 9 News Now, “the flooding that resulted from such copious rainfall [as Agnes produced] remains the benchmark for how devastating flooding can be across the Mid-Atlantic Region. The Potomac River peak stream flow measured in cubic feet per second (CFS) in the aftermath of Agnes set a record of 359,000 CFS. That’s compared to the January 1996 flooding flow of 347,000 CFS. To put that in perspective, the average stream flow for the month of January along the Potomac is only 13,000 CFS.”
Agnes basic information
Formed: June 14, 1972
Dissipated: June 23, 1972
Main areas affected: Yucatán Peninsula, western Cuba, Florida Panhandle, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York
Total number of deaths: 128
Lowest barometric pressure: 28.85 in.
*Although there was an earlier subtropical storm named “alpha.”
Additional information links