Floodwaters soak Western Md. Residents evacuate homes after snowmelt swamps the state

January 21, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

HANCOCK -- Like a sledder picking up momentum on a break-neck ride, mounting floodwaters surged from Appalachia down the Potomac River yesterday, flooding towns in Allegany and Washington counties on its way to an expected cresting late this morning in Washington, D.C.

Flooding yesterday was particularly severe around this hamlet of about 2,000 people in the narrowest part of Maryland's western panhandle, where the Potomac and a creek first started to overflow late Friday night.

Water lapped up against Interstate 70 east of Hancock, and two blocks of Main Street downtown were under water, with 10 businesses and 12 residences evacuated early yesterday.

Local anxiety focused on the town library, which like most of the affected buildings, seemed to be slowly disappearing in a soup of mud, water and ice.

"It's terrible," said Mary Younkey, a cashier at Weaver's Restaurant, on a dry part of Main Street. Even if it wanted to, the town couldn't drown its sorrows -- the liquor store is inaccessible.

Town officials in Hancock and in devastated Allegany County said they were only beginning to estimate the cost of the damage. Final tallies could take several days.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, attired in a flannel shirt and mud-covered shoes, toured soggy Cumberland yesterday afternoon.

Mr. Glendening said he hoped that additional funding to help the state recover from this weekend's floods would be included in the money sent to Maryland as part of the federal disaster aid package already promised by President Clinton in the wake of this month's blizzard.

The floods are attributed to the nearly 3 feet of snow recently melted by unseasonably warm weather and heavy rain.

There have been no reports of deaths or serious injuries resulting from flooding in the western part of the state.

But Maryland State Police said that ice from a Friday night freeze of newly melted snow caused a tractor-trailer heading east on Interstate 68 yesterday morning to go out of control and overturn, killing the driver.

In La Vale, just outside Cumberland, Ed Lease, 35, a truck driver, lost his home along Wills Creek in the Locust Grove neighborhood.

The two-bedroom house -- which Mr. Lease shared with his wife, Brenda; his son, Eddie; and their dog, Spiker -- washed away Friday morning.

L It was the second time floodwaters had hit Mr. Lease's home.

In 1985, the day after he closed escrow on the house, he got "a few feet" of water in the front door. This was different.

"It's peaceful here, but I ain't gonna rebuild," Mr. Lease declared. "Two times is somebody upstairs telling me something."

Mr. Lease spent yesterday picking through debris in his neighborhood with a small red ax. His kitchen rested in a few trees along the river, and furniture from his son's bedroom could be found a mile downstream.

But Mr. Lease was most concerned about finding his workman's tools and some 30 guns.

"What can I do?" he said, holding an antique revolver. "It hasn't sunk in. But my wife couldn't make it back up here today. It's pretty rough."

Mr. Lease's neighborhood of 27 homes sustained more serious damage than any other in the region, officials said.

Every resident lost items to the currents, and state police confirmed reports of looting in a few abandoned houses.

Many of the residents are senior citizens or working people who like the quiet. Few have flood insurance. Locust Grove is reachable only by a one-lane bridge, which was so weakened by Friday's flooding that cars are not being allowed on it.

"The elderly folks wouldn't leave," said Roy Musselwhite, 41, who rode out the flood with four senior citizens who did not honor an evacuation order by state officials. "I've been here 20 years, and nothing has come even close to this."

Across Wills Creek, a cluster of auto dealerships was ruined by the floodwaters. Randy Shaffer, a third-generation Ford dealer, lost his entire inventory -- more than 180 cars worth an estimated $3 million.

"I'm numb," said Mr. Shaffer, 45, who opened a dealership here in 1981.

"I wanted a new showroom, but not this way," Mr. Shaffer said.

The American Red Cross opened shelters for the evacuees, who numbered in the hundreds. But only a handful of people spent the night at each of the shelters.

"Hey, we got our lives," retiree Elizabeth Judy said to her neighbor, Louise Thomas, as they shared potato chips at the La Vale fire station.

For most of the region, though, yesterday was a time for sighs of relief while parts of towns in both Garrett and Allegany counties remained evacuated.

Residents began to sense that they had absorbed most of the waters' pounding.

At 7 a.m. yesterday in Friendsville, population 600, residents pumped the last of the water from the basement of the methodist church.

And Mayor Spencer Schlosnagle, facing a primary tomorrow in his bid for a sixth term, toured the town in his green Chevy Cavalier.

"Close calls," said Mr. Shlosnagle as he drove by the town's water treatment plant. "But I can't take much more of this."

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