by FCRW Volunteer – Brianna Riesbeck.
On the evening of June 22nd, as the river began to rise, the population of the Southern Tier was assured that there was no imminent danger. After days of continuous rain brought on by Hurricane Agnes, the Chemung river water levels were higher than ever. Many families went to sleep that night, trusting the dikes would hold as they’d been told. Around 5:00 am on June 23rd, the emergency alarms sounded, signaling the need for an emergency evacuation. The dikes gave way and thousands of gallons of water gushed into the city streets. In a matter of roughly an hour, the downtown Elmira/Corning area was submerged under nearly 6 feet of water. Entire homes and businesses were swept away from their foundations, leaving the towns devastated. In Elmira, the Walnut St. bridge was carried away. And while many people were able to evacuate, 18 people lost their lives in the flood.
Less than 24 hours later, the rain stopped and the waters began to recede and the Southern Tier began a summer of recovery.
I was born two decades after the flood but my parents were both teenagers living in downtown Corning when it happened. I asked them about how much they remembered and what that experience was like being so young. My mom remembers her mother packing her and her siblings up around 11:00 pm, well before the dikes gave way, to take refuge at Winfield school. She had a feeling that it was better to be safe than to be sorry. Her family had only lived in that house for 6 days before the flood hit. My dad doesn’t remember the alarms but does remember his older siblings coming to wake him up for evacuation. Even fifty years later, they both distinctly remember the amount of destruction and the seemingly infinite cleanup that the city endured that summer.
The recovery process from the flood was long. My dad says that his first job was working with the Youth Emergency Services that Corning Inc employed to help with flood cleanup that summer. He remembers how thick the mud was that coated everything in the city. “Everything was so contaminated with mud and debris that we weren’t able to eat or drink anything that had come into contact with it. We were supposed to wear gloves when we touched anything. Our family lived in a flood trailer and only ate canned food and drank bottled water.”
“It must have taken 4-6 weeks before we had a flood trailer to stay in,” my mom recounts. “Rebuilding took months. I remember celebrating Christmas in that trailer! It wasn’t until the following Spring that I think we were able to move back into our house. But as a kid, it was kind of exciting. We spent the summer with our friends helping our neighborhood rebuild. We didn’t have to think of the logistics like our parents did.”
Among the countless homes and businesses working to rebuild after the flood, The Corning Museum of Glass was undergoing its own painstaking recovery. The museum had an incredibly ambitious goal to open its doors again on August 1st 1972, just six weeks after the flood. Leaders of the museum refused to let the building be a sign of defeat for the city of Corning. So the swift and careful restoration began. Glass had to be sifted out of 4 inches of mud and washed through a strainer in an attempt to piece priceless artifacts back together. The library books were all cataloged and frozen in an attempt to prevent mold while the librarians diligently took apart books to be dried and rebound. People from all over the country came to help restore the museum to its former glory. And, as intended, the museum opened up six weeks later for tourism, though much of the museum remained closed off as a work in progress.
As the region rebuilt itself, the dikes were also repaired and raised. Thankfully, 50 years later, we can say that the Southern Tier hasn’t flooded to that degree since then. Government agencies as well as the Chemung Basin Flood Warning Service have worked to improve flood warnings and reduce the damages caused by flooding. And while we as a community have learned a lot about flood preparation since 1972, a natural disaster is always a possibility. The best thing you can do is arm yourself with the knowledge of what to do if a flood were to ever hit your area.
- Monitor television and radio alerts. Keep an eye on nearby streams and drainage areas.
- If you must evacuate or move to higher ground—act quickly.
- Never attempt to drive on a flooded road. Do NOT drive around barricades.
- If water rises around your car, abandon the vehicle immediately.
- Never try to walk, swim, or drive through swift water.
- Stay away from power lines and electrical wires.
If you’d like to learn more about flood safety and preparedness, you can click our link here to access the Friends of the Chemung River Watershed educational page on flooding.