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Buckled bridges, destroyed homes: 1972 flood transformed Elmira, Corning into 'war zone'


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Fifty years after Tropical Storm Agnes decimated the region, the impact of the catastrophic flooding can still be felt on our cities and neighborhoods. Throughout 2022, we’ll report on the success stories in the years afterward as well as the lasting toll the storm has left on our communities.

It happened in a matter of hours.

In June 1972, relentless rain unleashed by the remnants of Hurricane Agnes turned the normally placid Chemung River and its tributaries in New York's Southern Tier into raging, deadly torrents.

In the Elmira-Corning area, the rapidly rising river overwhelmed dikes, sent walls of water down city streets, buckled bridges and swallowed up homes and businesses.

A radio reporter stood on a rooftop and watched the roaring current sweep away a downtown Elmira bridge.

A young Corning couple frantically fled their home in the middle of the night as water surged higher.

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Their stories echo hundreds of others, memories of water rescues from second-floor windows, fires left to burn as rushing water barricaded them from responding crews, families stranded and separated, watching their neighborhoods disappear overnight.

Once the floodwaters receded, they left behind a nightmarish landscape of unimaginable destruction and suffering. Rebuilding would take years and for some areas, things would never be the same.

Half a century later, nothing can shake the memories.

People who live here still mark time by before and after "The Flood." Residents born after 1972 have grown up hearing about it from their parents and grandparents. 

The destruction wrought by Agnes' fury has left an indelible imprint across the region, wounds that have taken decades to heal, and scars that still remain. 

Most destructive hurricane in U.S. history

As hurricanes go, Agnes began relatively weak.

The system only achieved hurricane status briefly as it churned through the Gulf of Mexico — and at its strongest it was only a category 1 storm.

But a chain of events including an atypical path and merger with a separate storm system triggered catastrophic flooding in the Northeast and $3.1 billion in damage, leading the National Weather Service to label Agnes "the most destructive hurricane in United States history."

Agnes formed as a tropical depression June 14 off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, then quickly strengthened but lost intensity just as fast as it crossed from the Florida panhandle over Georgia on June 20.

Agnes moved north along the East Coast, regaining power before it merged with a second cyclonic system, and the combined storm took a rare inland turn before stalling over the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania and Southern Tier of New York and dropping as much as 10 inches of rain in a matter of hours.

At an observation point in Corning, the state Department of Environmental Conservation determined the swelling Chemung River would crest below flood stage, and on June 22, Corning Mayor Joseph Nasser said river levels were receding, as was the threat of major flooding.

The next several hours would reveal a disastrously different reality.

A night of terror and stark images

Water levels rose quickly, more than a foot an hour. 

Steuben County Sheriff Jack Lisi declared a countywide emergency and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller released National Guard troops to help evacuate residents living in towns and cities along the storm's path, from downtown Corning's mix of bars and gaudy neon signs to Elmira's vibrant business district, and all the rolling rural neighborhoods in between.

Betty Coccho remembers the uncertainty — and the fear.

Gathered with several neighbors on the front porch of their home on Maple Street in Corning the night of June 22, Coccho and her husband Frank watched the water rise at an alarming rate.

Each grabbing one of the family dogs, and with their daughter on Frank's back, they ventured out into the road, heading for Hazel Street where they'd heard the National Guard was stationed. Water came rushing through a nearby alley, knee-deep by the time they crossed the street and over their heads just as they climbed over a fence a block over.

They made it to another home on Sly Avenue, where Coccho remembers the floodwaters lapping at the second-story windows by the time a boat rescued the group.

About 15 miles downstream, Paul Orlousky, a newscaster for WENY Radio, was called into the studio in the Mark Twain Building in downtown Elmira for an extra shift.

He was broadcasting emergency evacuation alerts when the power went out at the station, and he and a few other employees were trapped for several days, living off snacks from the vending machines.

From the roof of the seven-story building, he watched trees and cars float down the river.

"I looked at the Walnut Street bridge," Orlousky, now 69, said. "A house hit it and tore it loose."

Another 20 miles downstream, former Sayre Evening Times Sports Editor Glenn Rolfe, 66, who lived in Athens at the time, called the things he'd seen "pretty gut-wrenching" —  houses floating down the river in pieces, and a horse, struggling to keep its head above water, then disappearing beneath the surface.

Despite heartbreaking loss, communities rally 

In only a few days, the entire complexion of the region along the New York-Pennsylvania border had dramatically changed.

The immediate needs of thousands of displaced residents took priority over long-range rebuilding plans.

The water withdrew, leaving in its wake scattered debris, a thick layer of mud covering city streets and a musty smell that lingered for months. It was "like a war zone," Corning patrolman Allan Salyerds said.

"It was total devastation, just terrible," said Salyerds, who was a rookie with the Corning Police Department. "I really thought the city was gone."

Agnes claimed 128 lives. Most of the lives lost in New York were in the Corning area, and New York State Police shouldered the responsibility of identifying the victims — some of whom were children — and notifying their families.

Investigator Bill Driscoll, 83, then a 13-year state police veteran assigned to the Painted Post barracks, remembers the struggle to coordinate search and rescue efforts with most means of communications disabled — flood waters had taken out telephone service — and the grim responsibility of delivering news no one wants to hear.

"Nobody who wears a uniform looks forward to making those notifications," he said.

Once the crisis was over, government and business leaders made plans to rebuild storm-stricken areas. In their local neighborhoods, residents helped each other clean up and began the messy work of reclaiming their hometowns.

Southport Fire Department's Michael S. Smith, who was a college student home for summer vacation, said they spent a month pumping cellars. He's never forgotten the dust and the "horrible" smell.

Different communities recovered at different rates, and while Corning was buoyed by the commitment of its largest employer, Corning Inc., the flood pushed Elmira into decline.

Still, they shared one common factor — people came together.

"People helped each other," Smith said. "Everybody got along."

A lingering impact

The downtowns of Elmira, Corning and other communities look drastically different after rebuilding from the 1972 flood.

Market Street in Corning, once known for tourist-oriented gift shops and bars, is now lined with historic buildings restored with federal relief money and recognized on the state and national registers of historic districts. 

Water Street in Elmira, which runs along the Chemung River through downtown, was once the hub of retail activity in Chemung County. After the flood, most of the buildings on the south side of the street, closest to the river, were torn down and replaced with a city park and parking lots.

Many buildings on the other side remained vacant and deteriorating for years, and only in recent years have they been restored or torn down to make room for new development.

Over the years, groups such as Friends of the Chemung River Watershed have emerged, promoting the river for its recreational value, but many residents are still haunted by the moments when the river turned from friend to dangerous foe.

Coccho still gets nervous when she sees multiple days of rain in the weather forecast. 

"I pray every day something like that never happens again,"

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