An earthquake, a hurricane and tornadoes plagued northeastern and central Pennsylvania through the summer of 2011, but my family and I never dreamed that our long weekend trip to Gettysburg would be curtailed Thursday by epic flooding, but when we woke up at 5:30AM in a Best Western hotel in Lebanon, we discovered that we were running out of time to unload the car in hopes of saving it from the rising fury of the Swatara Creek.
"I'm twenty nine years old and this part of Lebanon never flooded like this," said front desk clerk Tiffany Tomaszewski as she watched the water lap the sandbagged front door of the hotel around 9 a.m.. Longtime Lebanon resident and fellow desk clerk Bill Blohm confirmed the flooding was a first-time occurrence this close to Interstate 81. Both hoped it would subside by evening.
We started our trip on Wednesday evening and even though it had rained, Summit Hill was just overcast as we began our vacation. We made it to Interstate 81 and Frackville and stopped for some supper at the Cracker Barrel there, but soon we heard the loud drumming of rain on the roof. When we came out of the restaurant and returned to 81 south to continue our journey, we never dreamed what was about to come.
The further south we went the heavier the rains came down. In all my years of driving, I never saw such heavy rain. At times it seemed like we were driving on the bottom of a river and we literally were unable to see pavement markings. The closest thing that I could compare it to was driving in a blizzard. Trucks would pass us and totally blind us. It took us over an hour to just travel the 20 or 30 miles from Frackville to Pine Grove and the weather was taking a toll on us.
We just passed the exit for Pine Grove and the bright hotel marquee there and I turned to my wife Katie and said, "You know, I really think maybe we should stop for the night. I am getting tired and the rain is getting worse." We decided to pull over at the next exit which was Lebanon just above Fort Indiantown Gap. There was a Best Western close to the highway just down the road from the truck stop, so we pulled in and fortunately there was room so we decided to stay for the night.
There was a gas station in front of the hotel so I went over to get some sodas and snacks for the night. As I checked out, I said to the man, "I'm glad you were still open." He answered matter-of-factly, "You are the last customer."
This morning as I watched his store swiftly become inundated with about two feet or more of water, his words came back to me and I thought, "Those words may be literal if the water continues to rise." Off to the right, a mobile home evacuated from the campground is now halfway under the water. Some of the guests and I wonder where the owner is and if he realized it how deep it was.
I as up at 5:30 a.m. when my wife woke me and said look at the parking lot. We looked at a swiftly enlarging pond beginning to inundate the lot. I said, "Let's get the luggage out of the car. I don't think we are going to be leaving soon." Katie and I removed the bags and I said to her I wanted to see what we could do with the car.
Katie took the luggage up on a cart in the elevator and I asked the owner, Mr. Singh where we could move the car. He came outside with me and said it would be safe where it was for an hour or two. My gut said he was hoping that was the case, but my intuition was saying the hill above us might be safer. I crossed the street to speak to the truckers hoping to stay above the water which at this point had the stop sign almost underwater.
"If you go slowly, I think you can get it out of here," one man said. "Just listen to me." I followed his direction and got the car on the highway and drove for high ground. There were no public lots so I kept going. Fortunately at the top of the hill, I came upon a car dealership.
There was no one there, but I found the field had some vehicles above the building so I parked it there, locked everything up and took the bag from the backseat and the umbrella and began my mile walk back to the hotel praying that I would reach it while I could still get back inside.
Like an angel, a truck pulled up and a man said, "I saw you walking when I went down to see what was happening and on my way back, I saw you still walking so I stopped to see if you were okay. My name is Doug." I found out he was a mechanic at the dealership and after I explained why I was there he took me back up to make sure the car was in a good place.
After we moved it he said, "I will take you down as far as the flares and from there the hotel is close by. I don't think the owner of the lot will have a problem and I will tell him why it's there and what happened." We arrived at the flares in a few minutes and he let me out. I said, "Thank you Doug and be safe. I really appreciated your help."
By now the hotel was within 50 feet of me, but the water was still rising even faster than before I moved the car. In fact, the spot where my car was originally parked was almost two feet deep as I crossed the lot. That was when I met Danny who was at the side door.
Army veteran Danny Portanova from Scranton told me he traveled here and checked in on Wednesday for his 28th Division reunion. "This totally surprised me. We knew yesterday there was going to be some flooding but no one dreamed it would be like this." We moved into the building and down to the lobby to sit in the breakfast nook.
"I helped move people in Wilkes Barre during the Agnes Flood." Portnova said he was attached to the Plymouth Armory at that point. I talked to the men across the street who had a garage and they said in the 50 years they have been here, they never saw flooding like this." As Portanova and I spoke in the lobby, water began seeping in under the walls.
I excused myself and returned to our room on the third floor. Katie and I got the camera and went to the stairwells which had windows to take some pictures. We figured the experience was worth documenting.
On the west side of the hotel, we watched a dumpster float by our hotel. It was corraled by the employees and the owner at the rear of the building. They desperately poured water in it in an effort to stop it and it seemed successful.
On the east side, the water was up to the bottom of the stop sign, but the cars at the garage across the street were covered up to the roof.
At 11a.m., the water was now covering the sidewalks and in the lobby at least three inches deep in spots. The elevator stopped working earlier in the morning. Fortunately about two hours later the water seemed to subside and by that point the hotel had some chicken and rolls shipped in for the guests.
We had no choice at this point but to watch and wait. Throughout the afternoon, the waters slowly receded back toward the creek so that by dinner time we were able to at least walk to the truck stop for some food and drinks.
At 6 p.m. the hotel is once again above the waters as well as the parking lot. Some guests brought their cars back, but we decided to play it safe. There is too much uncertainty about the waters north of here and I don't want to wake up tomorrow morning to the nasty surprise I fought to avoid today. For now, we are safe in a hotel with power and water. The waters have subsided for the moment but the roads back to the Panther Valley are still closed.
It's been an experience that we won't soon forget and while our home is safe. Our deepest sympathies go out to the people here who have lost their homes. A young woman is in the hotel with her baby. They were in the process of getting ready to move, but last night at 3 a.m. they were wakened and told to get out. They are here now and the first floor of their house is underwater.
Another woman who helped serve lunch and works here as a housekeeper is fighting back tears as she explained, "Our house was down there," pointing toward the bottom of the hill where the floodwaters originated. "We have lost everything."
It's now 9 p.m. and the swollen Swatara creek has receded back to where it was last evening. Heavy rain is still expected tonight before things calm down a bit. Interstate 81 is washed out from what the manager tells me. Pine Grove is still flooded and north for now is not an option. Fortunately this hotel is still open for now and we are safe, but our prayers are with the thousands of evacuees from Wilkes Barre to York and Lancaster that they remain safe and the waters return to their normal levels soon.