Hurricane Agnes Tragedy Stimulates Creativity |
While a picture might be worth a thousand words, that’s not the only way locals have documented the horrors of Hurricane Agnes.
Some put the pain into verse and added melodies that flow like the river through the valley. Memories transcend generations, inspiring not only survivors but also their descendants.
“The hurricane happened before I was born, but my family’s history was very affected by the event,” said Scott Tokarz, 37.
Tokarz’s grandparents, mother, aunt and uncle were living in downtown Wilkes-Barre when Agnes arrived. Over the years, they’ve shared stories about the hurricane with him.
“It was as if a line had been drawn in their lives. Each story was always prefaced with “before the flood” or “after the flood,” Tokarz said. “It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized how much of an impact it had and how the trajectory of their lives was so influenced by it.”
It was their stories that motivated him to write “Susquehanna Don’t Rise” for the Pennsylvania Heritage Songwriting Contest in 2018. Although he didn’t win, Tokarz recently entered him into the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association for his Songs of the Susquehanna project. The project, in its second year, asks musicians to submit their instrumentals or songs inspired by the Susquehanna River. The public can offer comments on the submissions, and then the organization selects several to be put on a reading list.
For the melody of “Susquehanna Don’t Rise”, Tokarz experimented with an acoustic guitar chord progression and worked on it until he said “everything fell into place”. Because of this, there was a very narrative feel and listeners may find themselves captivated by the story. However,
the song was over nine minutes long. Middle Susquehanna River Keeper John Zaktansky asked Tokarz to shorten it when he told Tokarz he would be included in the final playlist.
Zaktansky said “Susquehanna Don’t Rise” helped create a diverse final playlist for the Songs of the Susquehanna project.
“We strive to include a wide variety of song types in our collection and it is important for us to recognize songs that represent significant historical aspects of the river. As it was Agnes’ 50th birthday, it felt like the perfect fit,” he said. “Also, the song is pretty raw emotionally, not sugar-coated stuff, which again felt like an important element to incorporate alongside a few of the lighter selections.”
Tokarz said he was flattered to be included.
“It was a great opportunity to revise the song into something more dense and worthy of the project,” he explained. “When recording the second version of the song, I went with a much faster tempo. It gives the song a sense of urgency which I think fits the overall theme better.
Songwriters inspired by defining incidents
One of the parts of Tokarz’s song that ended up on the editing room floor was a disturbing effect of flooding in the Wyoming Valley.
“In the city of Forty Fort / 2,000 coffins afloat / Souls drawn from rest / Scattered and possessed / Corpses lie / Downstream until July,” the verse read.
Tokarz wrote the verse while doing his flood research for the parts of “Susquehanna Don’t Rise” that didn’t originate from his family’s stories.
“The floodwaters eroded the topsoil so much that the coffins were swept away. Several kilometers downstream, bodies and remains of the dead were still found months later,” he explained.
The event was so striking that others incorporated it into their work inspired by Hurricane Agnes.
In 1972 Frank Wildingway said he was standing in Forty Fort Cemetery with a friend when the levee broke. Then aged 15, he watched a coffin swirl in a great whirlwind.
“It was open and a white dress was hanging from it,” Wildingway recalled. “I later learned she was a doctor’s wife or it was speculation.”
Like Tokarz, Wildingway included the Forty Fort cemetery in his song called “The Flood”.
“In the cemetery / The river crushed the dyke / throwing the coffins / straight to the sky”, the verse goes.
Wildingway wrote “The Flood” in 1988 while in a San Francisco-based band called Bardo. It incorporates her memory as a resident of Swoyersville, near Wilkes-Barre, and the damage the Wyoming Valley suffered from Agnes. His friend and bandmate Dave Mihaly wrote the melody.
“It was a memory and an inspirational moment,” Wildingway said. “The words just got written.”
He has performed the song several times with Bardo, who played his last gig in 1992, and also recites it in poem form, which he says is well received by audiences.
Tell stories while singing
“Susquehanna don’t rise, levee won’t hold, not this time / Susquehanna don’t rise, levee won’t hold, not this time, not this time.” Tokarz sings in “Susquehanna Don’t Rise”, a reference to the levees in the Wyoming Valley.
During Hurricane Agnes, steady rains hit parts of Pennsylvania. As Wildingway notes in “The Flood,” June 23 is widely considered the storm’s most memorable day.
Wildingway’s and Tokarz’s songs reference how the Susquehanna River in the Wyoming Valley submerged stacked sandbags to lessen the effects of flooding. “The Flood” mentions the wailing sirens signaling that the Wilkes-Barre seawall had failed on June 23, a warning to residents to move to higher ground.
“I remember how much it rained for 20 days and the anxiety my parents felt when the river rose. We thought we were safe because we lived about a mile as the crow flies from the river,” Wildingway said. “We were wrong.”
Some did not recognize the true force of the flood when they left, including Tokarz’s family.
One of the stories that inspired Tokarz was the one his mother told about the family home and the chart used to track mortgage payments.
“My mother and her father went to the bank every month with their file. He was paying the bill and another box was checked on the board,” Tokarz explained. “After more than a decade of this ritual, the day has come when the final payment has been made. My grandfather was so proud to have paid for his house and supported the family.
Only a few months after the final payment, the deluge arrived. On June 22, 1972, they received the evacuation order to leave the house and seek higher ground.
“They all assumed it was just a precaution and everything would be fine. Because of that, they didn’t take anything with them. They left that house with only the clothes on their backs,” said Tokarz.
When the floodwaters receded and they were able to investigate, his family found everything in ruins.
“As my grandfather stood there in ankle-deep water, staring at the very house he had just paid for, he cried,” Tokarz recounted. “For the first and only time in her life, my mother saw her otherwise steadfast father cry.”
Even those who took some precautions against the floods saw their efforts wiped out by the disaster.
“A Kingston car dealership moved all their new cars to the Swoyersville High School football field,” Wildingway recalled. “The water rose and rose until the roofs of the cars leaked.”
When the waters receded, the landscape of the impacted towns changed. Homes, property and businesses were destroyed. Thousands of people were left homeless, housed in government-provided mobile homes or caravans.
The devastation prompted Tokarz to write “Victorian houses replaced / by perfectly placed huts” in “Susquehanna does not rise”.
“Each family was assigned a ‘box’ to reside in and, from what I was told, it was a very difficult and dark time for the makeshift community,” Tokarz said when he was asked about his inspiration for the lyrics. “This ‘temporary’ solution ended up lasting for many years.”
Mud and silt covered what was left, lingering for weeks as residents tried to clean it up.
“I made a lot of money cleaning up the floods that summer,” Wildingway said.