The Hurricane Agnes Flood of 1972 in South Central New York State

Cover Image:
Downtown Elmira view from a helicopter [1972]
Downtown Elmira view from a helicopter [1972] - Image Source
Introduction:

In early June of 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes formed in the Gulf of Mexico and quickly increased in strength.  Hurricane Agnes traveled up the eastern seaboard before blowing over the Atlantic Ocean to dissipate. On June 22, Agnes blew back inland from New Jersey and became trapped in a low-pressure system to the west.

New York State and Pennsylvania had fifty consecutive hours of rainfall from Agnes in mid-June.  Some areas of the Southern Tier were drenched in 18 or more inches of rain over just a few days. The unprecedented rainfall caused catastrophic flooding.

This was the most destructive flooding in New York history to date and the most expensive natural disaster in American history.  Agnes caused over $3 billion in damage (over $20.6 billion in today’s value), and five states were designated as disaster areas.  Overall, 128 people died because of Hurricane Agnes, over twenty of whom were in New York. 

While the entire east coast of the United States felt the effects of Agnes, this exhibit focuses specifically on its effects on South Central New York State. In New York, 14 counties were declared to be disaster areas.  Rivers like the Susquehanna, the Chemung, the Genesee, and the Allegheny crested their banks and rose 20 to 30 feet, engulfing nearby cities and towns.  

Recovery took months or years, and results varied. Corning fared arguably the best, as Corning Glass Works, now Corning Incorporated, poured enormous resources into quick but thoughtful recovery.  Other places, notably Elmira, suffered the loss of their downtown district and never fully recovered. 

Infrastructure along the Southern Tier was permanently changed by the flooding.  Most roads and bridges were repaired or rebuilt, but several railroad lines were so damaged that they were abandoned.  The Erie-Lackawanna Railroad filed for bankruptcy within days of the flood, and the Elmira and Williamsport Railroad and Lehigh Valley Railroad both declared bankruptcy shortly thereafter.  

This was neither the first nor the last great flood to assail the region. Humans have always built their dwellings along waterways, and waterways abound in New York State. The flood of 1972 was unprecedented because of the scale of destruction.  It became a defining moment in the region. This exhibit explores the events and the aftermath of the flood of 1972, through the eyes of the people who lived through it.

Credits:

This exhibit was written and researched by Sam Preston and Claire Lovell (SCRLC).  Special thanks to Kirk House of the Steuben County Historical Society, who wrote the excellent book, The 1972 Flood in New York's Southern Tier, and the many organizations who contributed digital material toward this project: the Steuben County Historical Society, Seymour Public Library, Schuyler County Historical Society, The History Center in Tompkins County, Houghton College, Corning Museum of Glass, the Chemung County Historical Society, SUNY Geneseo, Steele Memorial Library, the Corning-Painted Post Historical Society, and the Erie Lackawanna Historical Society.

Citation:

Claire Lovell and Sam Preston. The Hurricane Agnes Flood of 1972 in South Central New York. New York Heritage Digital Collections, June 20, 2022.