Floods we've known

Baltimore Glimpses

July 27, 1993|By GILBERT SANDLER

WE WOULDN'T presume to argue with Midwesterners about which region, theirs or ours, has suffered more from floods -- theirs from the mighty Mississippi, ours from the tiny (by comparison) Jones Falls.

No doubt they've had the worst of it, but make no mistake: Baltimore's Jones Falls has been a "lawless stream" in its day, one that could not be tamed and would not listen. At least five times over the years the stream has overflowed, spreading panic, destruction and death.

The earliest recorded flood of the Jones Falls occurred in 1786. "There are few pens in any degree capable of giving a just description of so awful a scene," a local newspaper reported at the time.

Then in 1817 the stream flooded again, "overflowing its banks and putting large segments of the city under water," according to a contemporary account. "In every direction, desolation is visible."

In 1837, the deluge returned, and "the Jones Falls was soon rendered incapable of retaining its boundaries," the newspaper reported. The rising waters flooded offices on the first floor of City Hall.

In 1858 the Jones Falls' overflow put Holliday Street under eight feet of water. "Bridges and roads as far north as Mt. Washington were washed away," a chronicler reported.

The worst catastrophe -- even worse than Agnes -- probably occurred in 1868. That year, "The stream rose with great rapidity, overflowing its walled banks, backing into contiguous buildings, penetrating dwellings, stores, carrying away bridges" and creating all manner of soggy havoc.

Ahhh, you may say, but that was all long ago. Couldn't happen today.

Wrong. In fact, it has happened repeatedly in modern times.

In 1972, during Hurricane Agnes, the Baltimore area experienced one of the worst and deadliest rainstorms in its history. It was a deluge. The streets were under water, basements were flooded and debris floated down the avenues. Near Mt. Washington, a woman was swept away from her car.

The Jones Falls had already swollen along much of its length and was running over its banks, threatening -- and in some cases damaging -- nearby businesses and homes. But the greatest danger lay upstream from the city, at the 111-year-old Lake Roland dam.

There, in the basin formed by the dam and the shore, the churning water was building foot by foot, throwing its awesome weight against the concrete wall that kept it in its channel.

If the dam broke, no one knew what would happen to the land below from Lake Avenue all the way to Pratt Street. The tense situation gave rise to much fearful speculation.

To this day, the strength of the dam remains a matter of controversy. In 1979, Jeffrey O. Smith, then chief of dam safety for the city, offered the opinion that "if a hurricane comes along, the dam will not be adequate. We are living on borrowed time."

But Richard Kretzschmar, then chief of the city's water division, disagreed. "That dam held during Agnes," he said. The clear implication was that should be proof enough of its strength.

However, in 1983, an Army Corps of Engineers report warned that the dam was "seriously inadequate" to meet a "probable maximum flood" -- that is, one of such magnitude that it would only be expected to occur "once in 10,000 years."

We're supposed to take comfort in such big numbers. Still, it leaves Baltimoreans who live in the path of the Jones Falls to wonder: Just which of those 10,000 years will be the one in which the waters rise? Will it be 1993?

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