10 Years After Lee Businesses Still Cope With An Unpredictable River

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VESTAL, NY (WSKG) — The 2011 flood in the wake of Tropical Storm Lee devastated the Susquehanna River Valley, but a decade later businesses are still grappling with an unpredictable river.

The Flood

The Dietrich Theater on Tioga Street in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania first opened in 1937, but closed in the 1980’s. In the early 2000’s, it was revived and had been open every week except for one until the COVID-19 pandemic – the week following the 2011 flood.

“It was dark in here and it was wet in here and the original theater still had lots of water. The basements were filled to the top,” Erica Rogler, Executive Director of the Dietrich Theater said. “It was overwhelming.”

Before the water came up, Rogler rallied a number of volunteers, including a contingent from the bar across the street. They removed seats from the old theater and brought them upstairs. As the water continued to inch up over the bypass and through the parking lot of what was then Gay’s True Value Hardware, the situation became more dire.

“I was looking for sandbags,” said Bob Boyce, a former shop teacher and one of the volunteers who came to help. “And we had no sandbags, but we had popcorn bags,” 

Despite their best efforts to pump the water out, they struggled against the Susquehanna. But, in the days that followed, volunteers showed up to help clean out the theater and dropped off food and other items in support.

“Before that happened we were showing the movie ‘The Help’, so we just changed our marquis to ‘Thanks for The Help,’” Rogler said.

Within a week, they were able to open the newer side of the theater for an indy film festival, but a handful of volunteers, including Boyce, stayed to fix up the Dietrich for several months after.

Art Coolbaugh, owner of Susquehanna Canoe and Kayak Rental in the unincorporated community of Falls, Pennsylvania said he was surprised at the speed of which the river came up overnight.

“I said we’ll meet down here at 7 o’clock and start getting prepared,” Coolbaugh explained. “I got down here and the river was already up. My kayak shop was covered, and into my basement.”

Since The Flood: “Yeah, so it sucks”

Coolbaugh also owned Ardee’s at the time, but has closed the restaurant so he could focus on the canoe and kayak rentals. He said, while he started it as an addition to the restaurant, it is now fairly profitable on its own.

While he has started a remote rental operation around the lake at Frances Slocum State Park, Coolbaugh does the majority of his business on the river. So, when the water level goes up, and with it the turbidity and current increase, he cannot do business.

“It just shuts me right down. Yeah, so it sucks,” Coolbaugh said.

Having lived around Falls for the better part of 30 years, Coolbaugh said the water never used to change like that in the summer.

“Years ago when I was here, people would put docks out there in the river and leave them all summer, and never take them out,” Coolbaugh said. “Now, they’re in and out, in and out, constantly and there’s nowhere near as many docks.”

He said that it often takes the river a week or two to come down after heavy rain. In July of this year, the rain and river level kept him from renting for two to three weeks.

Other businesses are feeling the impact of a more volatile Susquehanna as well.

Since the flood, The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has redrawn flood maps. Some low-lying places in Tunkhannock and Falls cannot build or rebuild on the land they have owned for years.

Waiting For The Next One

At the Dietrich, Rogler said since 2011 they have created an emergency plan. In 2018, and again last December, her and some volunteers moved seats out of the theater, though the water never came in.

Additionally, they have made some structural changes. The HVAC units are now on the roof and expensive items mostly are not kept in the basements anymore. Rogler said she also checks The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) gauge of the river level at the Borough of Meshoppen regularly to be able to act early in case the river comes up.

“My husband and I go out back and measure so now we have a standing, we know what 31 feet at Meshoppen means,” Rogler said.

The evidence of 2011 likely will not ever go away, and continues to serve as a reminder of the power of the river. Mud is nearly impossible to get out of every nook and crevice. It is still on the breaker boxes in the Dietrich’s basement. There are water marks where the river crested on the theater’s main floor.

Despite the threat, Rogler is confident that, just as the river is bound to come up again, Tunkhannock will be back out to save its theater.

“They lost it once and they knew what it was like and they didn’t want to lose it again,” Rogler said.