Flooding, evacuations and rescues; worst may be yet to come

nesh creek photo
Neshaminy Creek rises toward top of bridge over Maple Avenue at Playwick Park in Langhorne on Sunday afternoon. It crested at 19.5 feet.

As Hurricane Irene unleashed torrential rain and powerful winds on Bucks County early Sunday morning, residents along the Neshaminy Creek and Delaware River were forced to leave their homes.

“I’ve been through this before,” said Eileen Rodriguez, who has lived along the creek on Periwinkle Avenue in Langhorne for 27 years. She and her husband, Steve, left their house around 4 a.m., Sunday, as soon as the water reached the street.

“This is the worst since [Hurricane] Floyd – we had to tear down the house and rebuild after that,” Eileen  Rodriguez said. She estimated 4½ feet of water was in her above-ground basement by early afternoon, when the creek crested at about 19.5 feet. The basement was empty except for belongings safely stowed on shelves, Steve Rodriguez said. 

In Bensalem, members of Newport Fire Company 44 rescued a man in his mid-30s and a neighbor who were rowing a tiny “bathtub boat” for help, Battalion Chief Jeff Rastetter said.

“He lives along the creek, and he and his girlfriend were stranded,” Rastetter said. “His cell phone was dead and the electricity was out. He tried to paddle to get help, but the swift waters dumped him out.”

Firefighter Andrew Witmer was driving around with Deputy Chief Mike Dydak when he spotted the man holding onto the back of the boat and screaming, “ I’m drowning,” Rastetter said.

Witmer said he and fellow firefighters tossed a rope and life jacket to the man and pulled him to shore, then pulled in the neighbor and the boat. A marine unit was called in to rescue the girlfriend from the house, he said.

The firefighters did not get the people’s names and thought they had gone to an evacuation center at Russell C. Struble Elementary School.

In nearby Penndel Borough, about 130 tenants of the Sherwood Meadows Apartments were evacuated in mid-afternoon because of possible gas and sewage leaks, the Bucks County Emergency Management Agency reported. They were taken by bus to the Red Cross shelter at William Penn Elementary School in Upper Makefield, borough Councilwoman Sue Anderson said. 

   Along the scenic Delaware River, roads were closed, power was out and residents had evacuated or were leaving homes in Lower Makefield, Yardley and New Hope. And the worst wasn’t expected until the river crests about 2 p.m.  Monday.  

    “We had two incidents -- Saturday was the wind, and Sunday was the flood,” said Yardley code enforcement officer Wes Foraker. “We escaped from the wind, but the water kind of snuck up on us overnight. The river rose so fast overnight and the canal was so high, that there was fear of the canal  overflowing.”

About 4:30 a.m. Sunday, residents of about 120 homes were urged to evacuate, and later 200 more homes were notified, Foraker said. “People who have not left have done this before. When they leave, they know they won’t be allowed back in until the roads are clear.”

Standing near a section of River Road under water, Foraker said the Delaware was expected to crest at about 24 feet, placing Irene between the devastating storms of 2004 and 2006.

After the 2006 storm, Yardley Inn owner Bob Freed bought inflatable levis to keep water out of his landmark restaurant overlooking the Delaware. On Sunday afternoon, rented generators pumped up the levis for the first time, adding about 3 feet of protection.

“That may be just enough,” he said. If not, it will take five to six weeks to clean up and reopen the restaurant. 

The inn, which served guests Saturday, was 90 percent empty by early Sunday afternoon. Furniture, dishes, glasses and cookware had been moved to “higher ground,” and the basement, normally filled with wine, liquor and other inventory, was bare, said Freed, who has owned the inn since 1989.

“In the scheme of things, what’s going on  in the world, this is small potatoes,” the restaurateur said. “It becomes a way of life. But we have 75 employees who depend on their jobs for a weekly paycheck. Flood insurance doesn’t cover work interruptions.”  

Several municipalities declared emergencies, including Nockamixon Township, Lower Southampton Township, Northampton Township, Bridgeton Township, Bristol Borough, Warminster Township, Warwick Township, Wrightstown Township, Perkasie Borough and Plumstead Township, the Bucks County Emergency Management Agency reported.

According to PECO, 12,428 households in Bucks County were without power as of 9:45 p.m. Saturday – not all of which were directly storm related. By 1:30 a.m., that number had risen to almost 57,000.