Evacuees prepare to return after eastern U.S. flooding

WILKES-BARRE, Pa., Sept 10 Sat Sep 10, 2011 1:20pm EDT

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WILKES-BARRE, Pa., Sept 10 (Reuters) - More than 130,000 evacuees in three states swamped by Tropical Storm Lee prepared to return home to clean the mess on Saturday as flood waters began to recede.

The death toll from the storm rose to nine on Saturday, including people killed in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland.

Relentless rain turned the typically bucolic Susquehanna River into a raging toxic mess after 10 sewage treatment plants were washed out in Pennsylvania.

President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in both Pennsylvania and New York, home to river towns submerged under as much as 8 feet of water.

In Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County Commissioner Steve Urban said the Susquehanna had receded to 31 feet (9.6 meters) on Saturday morning, approaching the level of 28 feet (8.5 meters) at which the county would lift evacuation orders for the river flood plain area.

"The message is that we're going to make a decision today and we want to get people back into their homes, but please wait until you get word from us," Urban said.

He said engineers were examining the levee system and utility companies were working to restore gas and power to areas where it was shut off right before the flood.

"There's a degree of normalcy returning for the people in areas protected by the levee, but there's a lot of work ahead for a number of communities outside the levee system," he said.

Wilkes-Barre officials estimated that about one quarter of the districts in the city of 41,500 people were flooded.

More than 130,000 people in Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland were evacuated on Thursday due to rising waters.

Scattered thunderstorms for the rest of the weekend could unleash heavy rain in some areas, threatening flash flooding, according to meteorologist Meghan Evans on Accuweather.com. A break in the clouds was predicted for Monday and Tuesday before more wet weather returns midweek.

A ninth death from the storm was reported on Saturday, after authorities towed the car of a young woman who had been trapped by flood waters in Philadelphia and discovered her body inside, police said.

(Writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Greg McCune)

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