Friday, June 21, 2024

Deja Vu June 21-22 : Surviving 1972's Agnes

I’m alive today because my future bride refused to spend the night in a basement motel room. 

In this time of extreme weather—forecasts for today and tomorrow call for frequent downpours that “will be severe, may hit suddenly and could trigger flash flooding”—it is calming, even reassuring, to reflect on a past encounter with the strength of Mother Nature. Fifty-two years ago to this very day, Gilda and I endured on again, off again torrential rain, the leading edge of Hurricane Agnes which turned into what at the time was considered to have caused the worst flooding in U.S. history.

While scouring Mid-Atlantic states for a reporter’s job in 1972, Gilda joined me June 21 for Pennsylvania stops at newspapers in Pottstown, Pottsville and what I had planned for Harrisburg. 

Riding in and out of drenching downpours so thick that sometimes we had to park the car under an overpass as we couldn’t see out the windshield, only to be followed by sunny skies, we plied on, heading towards Harrisburg. 

The overwhelming aroma of chocolate presaged our arrival in Hershey in late afternoon. At the Hershey Inn the price of a room was way too high for a not yet employed reporter. Everywhere else we looked, however, had no vacancies. 

We were about to swallow our pride and budget and go back to the Hershey Inn when we came across a motel built like an old Victorian home. It had a room, in the basement, down a steep driveway. Though she was currently renting a street level apartment in Brooklyn, Gilda had no desire to spend the night underground, so we pushed on, fortuitously discovering the newly opened Milton Motel sitting on a slight bluff less than half a mile away. We took a room, ate dinner at a nearby restaurant, went to bed and slept right through as Hurricane Agnes devastated Eastern Pennsylvania in the early morning hours of June 22, 1972.

On both sides of the Milton Motel roads were impassable beyond half a mile, we discovered. They remained that way for more than a day. We weren’t too inconvenienced. As the motel still had power, we watched some TV. We played cards. And we had our choice of restaurants, a fast food hamburger joint to the right of the motel, a fried chicken place to the left. 

Only one thing kept us from fully enjoying the experience. Within our arc of comfort lay the Victorian-style motel, now submerged in water up to the second floor! Not being a swimmer, I shuttered to think what I would have done if water had gushed into our basement room.

“Agnes was the costliest hurricane to hit the United States at the time, causing an estimated $2.1 billion in damage and killing 128 people across eight states. The name Agnes was retired in 1973 due to the storm's significant effects,” media reported. 

I consider myself and Gilda fortunate not to have been among the casualties.