Returning to the area where he spent his childhood, Vice President Joe Biden on Friday promised the federal government will help residents beleaguered by record flooding that caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage after the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee inundated northeastern Pennsylvania with a foot or more of rain.
Biden, who grew up in nearby Scranton, toured a heavily damaged neighborhood in Duryea, where homes were inundated by flooding that surpassed records set by Hurricane Agnes in 1972.
"There is nothing we can do to make you whole in the sense that a piece of your life and a chunk of your heart had got ripped out here," Biden said in brief remarks after the tour. But he told residents not to give up hope, promising that federal aid would help get them back on their feet.
"We're not leaving. The federal government is not stepping away, we're stepping in," said Biden, who was joined by Gov. Tom Corbett, Sen. Bob Casey, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate and other officials.
Flooding along small streams and the Susquehanna River damaged or destroyed thousands of homes and businesses in central and eastern Pennsylvania. The deaths of at least a dozen people have been attributed to the flooding.
Biden wove his way around piles of debris that line Chittenden Street, popping in and out of damaged homes and comforting residents. A musty smell hung in the air, a week after the Lackawanna River went over the levees and flooded 339 homes in Duryea.
Biden put his hands on the shoulders of Gertrude Yachna, 79, who lives with her two elderly sisters and a disabled nephew in a home that's been in the family for a century. They had only 15 minutes' warning before the river began to flood. The water got halfway up the first floor.
Gertrude said she was comforted by Biden's presence, but remains worried about the future. She and her sisters are living in a hotel temporarily, but don't yet have a long-term place to live.
"Right now, we're desperate," said Gertrude, sobbing.
Her sister Johanna Yachna, 75, quipped that Biden "would have made it really good if he got a shovel to help us."
Across the street, Biden struck a hopeful note as he encouraged homeowner Jimmy Pliska to rebuild the twin home that had likewise been in his family for generations.
"Hang on," Biden told him. "This is no time to give up."
Pliska, an auto mechanic, said before the vice president's arrival that he didn't see any reason to rebuild the large twin with gray siding, wrap-around porch and antique chestnut woodwork, which has been stripped to its studs after being swamped with five feet of water.
"Why? It's going to happen again," the 47-year-old Pliska said.
Pliska broke down as he pointed to a black and white photo of his father as a young boy sitting on the steps of the family home. Nearby, his 11-year-old daughter, Julia, and 12-year-old son, James, wore masks as they milled about the house.
Some 600 to 800 tons of debris have already been hauled away from Duryea, but the job is by no means complete. Even as Biden walked around, residents continued lugging water-logged belongings out to the street.
In his remarks, Biden praised some construction workers who were helping to haul debris.
"These guys over here in the hard hats, by the way, what's the name of the outfit?" Biden said.
Reminded they were from Mericle, a commercial real estate developer, Biden said, "I tell you, it's appropriately named. I'm told by the mayor and congressman and senator you guys have done a heck of a job so far."
Mericle's owner, Robert Mericle, recently pleaded guilty to federal charges related to one of the biggest courtroom scandals in U.S. history. Prosecutors say Mericle paid a $1 million kickback to a judge related to the construction of a for-profit juvenile detention center. He awaits sentencing.
The vice president's office said Biden didn't know anything about the company or its owner.
"The vice president was praising the workers who were volunteering their time to help a community in urgent need," said spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff.
There were a few moments of levity mixed with the despair.
Biden lifted 6-year-old Kai Hubert to the microphone and asked him to repeat the question he'd just asked the vice president.
"Can you help us fix my grandma and grandpa's house?" the youngster asked, drawing laughter.
"Yes I can, yes I can," Biden said.