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When it rained for three days: Wellsville and the Flood of ’72

Photos courtesy of Dick Neal

Wellsville’s South Main Street is flooded.


By KATHRYN ROSS

WELLSVILLE — When it rains in June, longtime residents of Wellsville look to the sky and remember Hurricane Agnes of 1972, when the heavens opened up, dumping between 13 and 16 inches of rain on the region.

Surrounding creeks overflowed. The Genesee River, running through the heart of the village, poured over its banks. For three days it rained, creating so much devastation that it would take weeks, months and even years to clean up.

The village landscape was forever changed. Only a few years after the flood, the course of the Genesee was moved farther to the west to make room for the four-lane arterial by taking over land from the library, thereby putting Jones Memorial Hospital on firmer footing.

The National Weather Service explained that during the week prior to Hurricane Agnes a large amount of shower activity resulted in widespread areas of over an inch of rain. Heavy rain started on the night of June 20 and continued until June 25. Over the Genesee River basin the maximum official rainfall amount recorded was 13.7 inches at Wellsville, and reports of more than 16 inches were also received.

In 2012, college student Courtney Waters wrote a thesis about the storm for a hydrology class. She found that the flood of 1972 in Wellsville was the result of the convergence of two storms. Waters presented her flood thesis at a Geological Society of America Conference in Baltimore.

Waters wrote, “In mid-June, Hurricane Agnes made landfall in the Florida panhandle and carved a path as a severe tropical storm across the southeast and going into the Atlantic Ocean from North Carolina. The storm then tracked north again making landfall on Long Island as a subtropical storm. At the same time a cyclone was forming, and the two storms began feeding off one another. The two storms merged over Wellsville and stayed over Wellsville for three days resulting in the Flood of ‘72 from June 20 to 25.”

In a special report in the Sunday edition of the New York Times dated June 25, 1972, James M. Markham wrote of Wellsville and the flood, “Like well-placed punches, two floods struck this village of 6,000 inhabitants this week, pouring cascades of water, mud and debris onto a third of its homes and stores, destroying three bridges, wrecking part of its hospital, carrying away perhaps 100 automobiles, cutting off its electricity and telephones to the outside world and polluting its water supply.

“Yet today, as the residents of Wellsville shoveled ankle-deep mud out of living rooms and carted huge logs, dead fish, and muskrats off their lawns, many seemed to consider themselves lucky. For the worst flood in anybody’s memory killed no one here.

“The Lord might have hated us by emptying the rain on us, but He sure is protecting us anyway,” said Mayor Robert, Gardner, looking at a line of Army ambulances marked with red crosses lined up on Main Street.”

The author continued, “The first flood hit Wellsville, which lies in the lowlands of the Genesee Valley, early Wednesday morning. Dyke Creek, which joins the Genesee River in the middle of the village, spilled over its banks, while sheets of water poured down the sloping side streets out of ‘creeks that usually don’t have enough water to flush a toilet,’ the Mayor said.

“The village enjoyed a respite from flooding on Thursday, but early Friday the waters struck again. This time the Genesee River bulged over its banks, rising a total of 17 feet. In 36 hours, 12 inches of rain fell on Wellsville; its annual average rainfall is 30 inches.”

ATTESTING TO the camaraderie that occurred during the flooding, Markham went on to talk about residents from hippies to a local motorcycle gang coming together to help one another and fight back the flood water.

He also noted that to prevent looting, a curfew was imposed, and National Guardsmen patrolled the streets at night, but quoted the chief of police saying, “There’s been more talk of looting than looting.”

With all the heroes who helped pull Wellsville through the flood of 1972 two men stand out. Professional photographer Dick Neal spent his days and nights travelling across the flooded village in cars, boats and on foot to photograph the flood and the resulting devastation. His photograph of the collapse of a wing of Jones Memorial Hospital into the Genesee River made front pages and broadcasts across the nation. Residents living in Florida at the time recalled hearing Gardner’s distinctive voice coming from their television and turning to see Neal’s photo of the hospital.

Gardner, who served as the mayor of Wellsville for more than 25 years, had the forethought to hire Neal to make a pictorial record of the flood. That record benefitted every citizen and business owner who was impacted by the flood by providing fact-based evidence that resulted in help, money and support from FEMA and the federal government. The funds were used to not only rebuild Wellsville, but also to rebuild the homes that were destroyed or damaged by the floodwater.

Daphne O’Kelly, who produces programs for the David A. Howe Library’s Exhibition Room and Auditorium, compiled photos and memorabilia concerning the 1972 flood for display in the Exhibition Room.