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Bradford County Begins Daily Press Conferences

By Rick Hiduk

A cloud of dust hanged over a busy Main Street in downtown Towanda as public officials gathered behind the Bradford County Courthouse in the light of a welcome afternoon sun, with a slowly receding Susquehanna River as their backdrop, to provide a public assessment of the enormous impact that Tropical Storm Lee had on the area, as well as to provide a glimpse at what recovery efforts might look like.

All emergency and crisis services in Bradford County are functioning properly, and a State of Emergency continues into a third evening as Towanda Mayor Garret Miller, and county commissioners Mark Smith and Doug McLinko kicked off what they indicated would be a series of daily press conferences until they are no longer deemed necessary. According to McLinko, Commissioner John Sullivan was stranded outside the area and was unavailable for the conference. 

Smith praised to high level of cooperation between industry, volunteer-based groups, and government that has provided emergency services coordinators with a sense of confidence that they will be able to meet most of the immediate needs of residents affected by the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Lee this week.

Bradford County emergency services director Robert Barnes noted that since the commissioners announced a State of Emergency on Wednesday, procedures were set in place that had already been tested on a limited basis during a spate of spring flooding. This prior testing had produced expected or better-than-expected results.

The county’s 911 center logged 1,358 calls for service in the 14-hour period after the announcement on Wednesday. That number jumped to 1,649 calls on Thursday and dropped to 550 as of 3 p.m. on Friday.

Barnes related that 56 of those calls led to hands-on rescue efforts. There were several instances, Barnes explained, for which emergency personnel had to enter the water or “other dangerous situations” to rescue people, including several tractor trailer drivers who had driven into deep waters in the Wyalusing area.

Barnes suggested that the last figure he disclosed was disturbing to him, as many of the instances in which people found themselves in dire straits could have been prevented had the victims been more attentive to the situation and more respectful of warnings that had been issued. Secondly, only to the safety of residents in general, he stated, “When we send our firefighters and EMS personnel out, they’re going to come back safe, or we aren’t doing our job.

“Our mission is to provide public safety and provide for our residents with early warnings, advice, and directions,” said Barnes. “We had to put our firefighters and EMS people at risk because people did not move on time. When we issue an alert, we mean it. We’re serious about it.”

One of the biggest challenges facing EMS as a whole right now, he added, is making sure that the first responders get some rest and stay healthy by establishing schedules among volunteers so they can rotate their services.

His department requested outside assistance, including a swift water rescue unit that were unable to reach the areas where they were most needed. Meanwhile, the county was about to secure the assistance of some National Guard troops, with more expected to arrive before Friday was over. The state’s PEMA was already providing logistical support and equipment.

The commissioners and Barnes’ staff have covered and lent support to as much of the county as they were able to, but admitted that they are also coordinating with emergency response units and officials in communities such as Wyalusing and Rome, which were both still cut off from the rest of the county through most of Friday. At one point, there were almost 500 people in six shelters set up by the county. As of noon on Saturday, there are now two active shelters in the area, including the fire halls in Wyalusing and Athens.

Thanks to a mobilization by Chesapeake Energy and Talisman Energy, potable water is available at fire houses in North Towanda, Warren Center, and Wyalusing, as well as at J. Andrew Morrow School in Towanda and at Kmart in Sayre. Each resident will be able to take one gallon per person, per day.

Barnes expressed concern about potential health concerns of people re-entering flooded homes. Personal hygiene kits will be arriving shortly, which should be available at shelters and water distribution points to be determined by Saturday. In the meantime, Barnes suggests that residents boil water for drinking. Water can be made suitable for bathing by adding 1/8 teaspoon of household bleach per gallon of water and letting it sit for an hour. Another 1/8 of a teaspoon of bleach can be added if the water appears cloudy.

Residents are advised to refrain from eating food that is not packaged in watertight containers, including cardboard fruit and milk containers, as well as many brands of baby formula that have come into contact with floodwaters, as there is no way to properly sanitize the items or to prevent seepage.

He also advised caution with the use of gas-powered generators, the lack of proper ventilation of which can potential result in a buildup of carbon monoxide. Standing floodwater is of a particular concern because of fuel oil and other toxins that become part of it.

Residents are encouraged to come into contact with floodwater as little as possible and asked to prevent children and pets from playing in it.

Jody Place of Penelec perhaps offered the most sobering news of the day when she conceded that customers without electricity may have to wait several days to have their power restored as many areas of the county are not yet accessible to their crews, which will be out in full force on Saturday. She called for patience from customers, some of whom on higher ground who were not otherwise impacted by the flooding but who have no electricity. 

Sightseers have been a problem. Numerous arrests and citations have been reported for people driving through floodwaters on closed roads, many of which are found to be in pieces.

Rep. Tina Pickett related that it has been challenging to catalogue a reliable list of county roads and bridges that have been compromised because there is so much misinformation being processed by the rumor mill, rather than among the proper authorities. Until all roads and bridges have been inspected, Pickett and Towanda Borough Fire Chief Terry Sheets urge area residents to stay off the roads and to proceed very cautiously in areas where recent washouts or overflows are evident. Sheets noted that he has been in contact with Warren Knapp of PennDOT to address serious issues of Route 6 that are evident in both north of Towanda and east of Wysox as soon as possible.

“PennDot and the county both have a responsibility to inspect all of the roadways and bridges that have been affected, and that process is going to take some time,” said Smith. “We’re just starting that process, and we really don’t know what bridges are safe for people to traverse at this point. People should be very careful and only travel if necessary.”

In response to a reporter’s question of whether or not there was a concerted cooperation between neighboring counties, Sheets more or less indicated that such corroboration has been nearly impossible at this point due to damaged infrastructure between the counties and the fact that “they are in the same boat we are.”

Mutual aid between those companies that can access each other has become a key factor in response planning, Sheets noted. In the meantime, the recovery efforts of other entities such as the power companies and PennDOT are restricted until the water fully recedes. McLinko suggested that cash donations provide a more efficient way for agencies such as the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross to help local people in need. Many organizations are also in need of more volunteers, if only to staff the phones. 

 “Every organization is looking for additional people to help man their stations,” Sheets agreed, encouraging those who are not in need themselves to consider calling their local fire company or the Red Cross to donate as much time as they are able. Red Cross representative Sharon Lowery said that volunteer response to the crisis has already been phenomenal, but she will continue to add to her list of available helpers. Lowery noted that animal response groups associated with the Red Cross have also been pressed into action.

Barnes noted with regret that there had been one death attributed to the flooding in the county. While he would not provide names or a precise location, the deceased was an elderly man, who had become trapped in his home with his wife, both apparently overwhelmed by the climbing water. While the actual cause of death was not disclosed, the man’s wife was reported to have suffered serious hypothermia and is now in an area hospital.

On the topic of federal assistance and disaster aid, Barnes expects that the area will be put on the fast track to receive government assistance because the consequences are so obvious, unlike the painstaking process of tried to secure disaster for the spring floods, which was a drawn-out event with more sporadic damage. “It’s pretty much a slam dunk when it comes to the effect that we are going to have a declaration.”

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