Charles Schilling, like so many others, lost everything in the 1972 Hurricane Agnes flood.
He still has newspaper accounts of the devastating natural disaster that he can read and re-read in case he wants to remember everything about June 23, 1972.
For Schilling and all victims of the flood, there are more bad memories than anyone really wants to remember.
In a recent interview Wednesday with the Times Leader, Schilling talked about the experience and how it changed his life and the lives of many Northeastern Pennsylvania residents.
Schilling, 90, lived at 66 Gordon Ave. in South Wilkes-Barre with his wife, Yolanda, and their son, Charlie, when the Susquehanna River broke through the levees and reached one mile in width. The river flowed through houses and businesses, leaving behind a trail of devastation and layers of stinking flood mud that greeted returning residents.
“Our house was destroyed,” Schilling said, sitting at his kitchen table on the day before the 44th anniversary of the ’72 flood. He displayed a copy of the June 26 Scranton Times that carried a front page picture of Schilling’s old neighborhood, with his house right in the middle surrounded by water.
“The night before, I walked to the top of the dike with my neighbor to see what the river looked like,” Schilling said. “We both said we had seen it like that before. We never thought there would be a flood.”
But at 7 a.m. on June 23, Schilling left his home and took his family to high ground. He returned to Gordon Avenue five days later.
“I remember walking down Gordon Avenue and my house was in the middle of the street,” Schilling said. His house was knocked from its foundation by his neighbor’s house, which happened to now be resting on Schilling’s foundation.
Schilling said he never removed anything from his house before the flood hit – he lost furniture, clothing, photographs, sentimental items.
“Nothing could be saved,” he said. “We decided to get a house out of the flood plain. We didn’t want to ever go through another flood.”
A lot of the photos Schilling lost were of his son, Charlie, he and Yolanda’s only child. The couple were married for 19 years before Charlie arrived.
“We lost all of Charlie’s baby photos,” Schilling said.
As he flipped through the newspapers of June 1972, Schilling said there was a lot more lost in the flood. He said furniture and clothing were easy to replace, but there was a lot more lost that could never be recovered.
Schilling said since the flood, he hasn’t talked to any of his Gordon Avenue neighbors – people he talked to almost every day back then.
“They all scattered,” Schilling said. “There used to be a mom-and-pop store on every corner and they disappeared after the flood.”
Schilling found a newspaper account of his wife, Yolanda, being interviewed by NBC-TV’s Ron Nessen that aired on NBC Nightly News with John Chancellor.
“Time is flying by so fast,” he said. “Yolanda is gone 21 years now. My son lives in Virginia.”
Schilling said he helped pile sandbags in the days leading up to the flood.
“But we never thought the dikes wouldn’t hold,” he said. “We never thought it would flood.”
Schilling said it was a sad time – a bad time – for everybody affected.
“Everybody was in the same situation,” he said. “Everybody lost so much.”
His advice to anyone who lives in the flood plain today is simple.
“Take as much of the stuff you value and get it to safety,” he said. “And when they tell you to get out, then get the hell out.”
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