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Eastern U.S. floods force 130,000 to evacuate

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WILKES-BARRE, Pa (Reuters) – Relentless rain caused catastrophic flooding in the eastern U.S. on Thursday, killing at least three people in Pennsylvania and forcing the evacuation of more than 130,000 people in three states.

Remnants of Tropical Storm Lee, days after slamming the Gulf Coast, swamped homes and businesses from Maryland to New England. As much as a foot of rain was recorded outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which declared a state of emergency.

Flood warnings were in effect in northern Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and upstate New York and flood watches were under way in eastern Pennsylvania, parts of New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, parts of Maryland and Washington, D.C., according to the National Weather Service.

Some 65,000 people were evacuated from Wilkes-Barre and another 35,000 from surrounding counties, all threatened by the rising waters of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, said Stephen Urban, commissioner of Luzerne County.

The river was expected to crest at 40.7 feet later on Thursday evening, with levees in Wilkes-Barre built to withstand waters up to 41 feet, Urban said.

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Authorities imposed an 8 p.m. curfew in cities along the surging river near the city. Patrol cars cruised Wilkes-Barre and at least one patrolman used a bullhorn to warn: “After 8 o’clock, we’ll start arresting anyone who stays in this area.”

At curfew, the dark brown river was lapping 2 feet below the top of the earthen levee protecting the west bank of the river. Water was seeping into streets under a temporary flood gate set up to block off Market Street, one of Wilkes-barre’s main thoroughfares.

“I’m here out of curiosity,” said Jenis Walsh, 25, who lives in Wilkes-Barre. “I’m not scared. I’ve got faith in the levee system.”

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Streets were silent at dusk, with businesses like fast food restaurants and 24-hour pharmacies shut. Low-lying towns to the north of the city were already starting to flood.

“Almost every town along the Susquehanna River has experienced flooding,” said Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett.

In Hershey, a homeowner trying to bail out water out of his flooded basement died with the basement wall collapsed, one of three people killed by the storm in Pennsylvania.

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The other deaths were in Lancaster County, where a 62-year-old woman in her car was caught in rushing flood waters in Elizabeth township and a man was swept away trying to walk through rushing water 12 to 18 inches deep, authorities said.

“IRENE WITHOUT THE WIND”

Rivers and creeks still swollen by Hurricane Irene two weeks ago threatened cities and towns throughout Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey and were poised to smash records.

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“It’s like Irene without the wind,” meteorologist Elliot Abrams on Accuweather.com said of torrential rains predicted to continue through Thursday night.

In upstate New York, mandatory evacuations were declared for about 20,000 residents in Binghamton, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said. There are also evacuations in other towns of Broome County, near the Pennsylvania border, as well as towns in Schenectady County and Schoharie County.

Tetanus shots were given by public health nurses to more than 1,200 residents and rescue workers in an effort to prevent disease from contaminated flood waters in Schoharie County.

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Maryland also ordered several towns to evacuate, including Havre de Grace, with a population of about 11,000, and the tiny town of Port Deposit.

In Philadelphia-area flooding, mudslides and rock slides closed the busiest commuter highways, such as the Schuylkill Expressway and U.S. Route 1, and also railways including four heavily traveled commuter lines run by the Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority, or SEPTA.

Among New Jersey roads closed were busy Route 73 and parts of Route 29 in Trenton along the banks of the Delaware River.

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In New York, Amtrak shut rail service west of Albany and the officials expected many closures on the New York Thruway.

(Additional reporting by Dave Warner in Philadelphia, Daniel Lovering in Pittsburgh, Holly McKenna in Albany and John Rondy in Milwaukee; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Greg McCune)

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