Plenty of good things happened in Luzerne County this past decade, and The Citizens’ Voice newsroom staffers were always on the chase for the most memorable events — those that dominated headlines, stirred emotions and especially affected readers — carried themes of conflict, natural disaster and struggle.

The decade is still two years from ending and area residents have already experienced devastating natural disasters, the effects of greed and children’s innocence, and yet another scandal in the Catholic church. These are just some headlines that have had the county wishing for better days, however, there is always room for improvement and the Valley continues to show its heart as it puts its head down and strides into the next decade.

Natural disasters

The first major natural disaster of the decade, but certainly one not to be forgotten is the flood of 2011. No one thought the 1972 flood records brought by Hurricane Agnes would be broken, but the swollen Susquehanna had other ideas, cresting at 42.66 feet. The flood wiped out businesses, and made once bustling downtowns in areas of Bloomsburg, Mocanaqua, Pittston, Plains, Plymouth Township, Shickshinny and West Pittston, shells of what they once were. However, since the flood, mitigation projects, new downtowns, and new flood plans have been constant conversation topics at city meetings, showing that the county is learning and respecting the mighty Susquehanna.

Though flooding is most common to the Valley, this decade, the county experience not only a flood that brought water past the brink of the levees, but also a tornado and a snowstorm that buried Wyoming Valley. On March 14, 2017, it seemed as if the snow would never stop as 22.1 inches was dumped on Wyoming Valley. The storm shut down Wilkes-Barre and surrounding communities, with most schools being closed for the whole week. Wyoming County saw up to 30 inches of snow, but luckily, there were no deaths or serious injuries due to the storm.

Another natural disaster this decade was the tornado that touched down in Wilkes-Barre on June 13, 2018. An EF2 tornado — a twister with wind speeds of 130 mph — wreaked havoc near the Wilkes-Barre Township Commons and Arena Hub Plaza along Mundy Street. Eleven businesses were destroyed and nine sustained major damage, however, even though U-Haul trucks were thrown through the air and bookstore windows were blown out, only six injuries were reported.

Opioid crisis

The decade has also seen its fair share of struggle when it comes to the opioid crisis, which seems to just be getting worse. The year 2017 was the deadliest year ever for drug overdoses in Luzerne County with 144 overdose deaths as of the final week of December, four more than the previous year due to the continued distribution and use of ultra-lethal fentanyl, a synthetic opioid much more powerful than heroin. These numbers continue to grow despite public awareness campaigns and the widespread distribution of the opioid-reversal drug naloxone, commonly called by the brand name Narcan. The problem is a crisis, and for the first time ever, Luzerne County prosecutors started charging drug dealers in connection with overdose deaths. The pursuit of criminal charges in drug deaths is new because of a state Superior Court ruling that said prosecutors no longer have to prove a drug dealer acted with malice and intended to kill the user.

Church scandal

In August 2018, another blight hit the Valley and it came from a place where most go to find the light. In devastating detail, a 1,356-page statewide investigating grand jury report excoriates the Diocese of Scranton and five other Pennsylvania Roman Catholic dioceses as confederates in dismissing victims of widespread sexual abuse by priests and routinely covering up the abuse. The Diocese of Scranton also released a list of 70 priests and other religious leaders “credibly accused” of sexually abusing children. One of the Scranton diocese’s cases involved a priest, Thomas Skotek, who raped and impregnated an underage girl and arranged for her to have an abortion in the 1980s. Another local case centered on a priest, Robert Capparelli, while he served at a Hazleton church in 1968. A police officer, also member of Caparelli’s parish, wrote to McCormick to say the priest was “demoralizing” 11- and 12-year-old altar boys “in a manner that is not natural for any human that has all his proper faculties.” The Diocese of Scranton put out a statement, reading: “The Diocese of Scranton remains firmly committed to offering pastoral care to survivors of sexual abuse and maintaining a comprehensive array of policies and programs to protect children.”

Kids for Cash

This wasn’t the only time this century that Luzerne County betrayed the trust of the innocent. In 2008, the kids-for-cash scandal broke wide open. A group of youths sentenced in the county’s juvenile court and their parents claimed that judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan had open discussions with county officials about $2.8 million in payments the judges received from the backers of a for-profit juvenile detention facility. A jury found Ciavarella guilty of racketeering and other charges in the case. Conahan pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy. Hundreds of former defendants in county juvenile court filed civil-rights claims against the former judges and other individuals and entities implicated in the kids-for-cash case.

Wilkes-Barre Area school plans

While it seems the kids were forgotten about, school officials did try to do some good for them. The Wilkes-Barre Area School District plans to build a new high school there to merge the district’s three high schools — GAR, Coughlin and Meyers. The consolidated high school is expected to open in the 2021-22 school year. In 2017, the school board abandoned a plan to merge Coughlin and Meyers high schools in a new facility built on the Coughlin site in downtown Wilkes-Barre as a result of the city zoning board rejecting the plan. The board also abandoned a plan to build an addition to Kistler Elementary School for 7th and 8th grades because of the decision to merge all three high schools and use the GAR building as a middle school. However, since then, district is buying the 80-acre site from Pagnotti Enterprises for $4.25 million.

The future seems brighter for Luzerne County and the rain clouds seem to have cleared.

By Samantha Stanich, Staff Writer

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