Residents return to Port Deposit 24 homes damaged by flood, report says

January 23, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

Returning to flood-ravaged Port Deposit yesterday, residents saw the power of the Susquehanna River and the devastation delivered during their weekend evacuation: cars immersed in icy water, boats smashed and homes ruined.

Town officials were still assessing monetary damages yesterday, but a preliminary report by the Cecil County Red Cross listed nearly 24 single-family homes and 40 apartments that were destroyed or in need of repairs.

Cindy Hott, 36, returned to the Main Street home she shares with Doug Johnson, 31, to find water up to the first floor, saturated carpets and ruined furniture. And her 1993 Mazda truck destroyed. "This isn't going to be a good year," said Ms. Hott, who was rescued by boat with her three cats Saturday afternoon as floodwaters quickly rose to her front porch. "If we stay here, I'll have to buy an inflatable raft."

Meanwhile, a host of elected officials, including Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, toured the quaint 19th-century town, slogging through the muddy, wet streets.

area along with four counties in Western Maryland. The officials vowed to seek money to help Port Deposit, which is on the National Historic Register of Historic Places, recover.

"Mother Nature was pretty cruel," said state Sen. William H. Amoss, whose district includes the town. "Isn't this sad?"

Residents had little warning of the flood. Although the town had been notified Friday that crest gates at the Conowingo Dam, upriver, would be open, they didn't know 42 of the 52 gates eventually would be open to relieve pressure from the swollen Susquehanna.

"I haven't seen ice or water come up so quickly," said Kerry Abrams, a Town Council member who has lived in Port Deposit all of her 36 years. "The dam could have kept us more informed."

Yesterday, 33 gates were open but that number was expected to decrease to 24 today, said Michael Wood, a spokesman for the Philadelphia-based PECO Energy Co., owners of the dam. He said operators at Conowingo Dam often were taken by surprise over the weekend by the impact of the ice-filled river.

"Because the ice jams varied so much, no one could have predicted how much water was coming down," he said. As a result, even though town officials and property owners were notified according to emergency procedures, the river fluctuations forced dam operators to open the gates quickly.

But Janet Dooling, owner of the Union Hotel restaurant about 2 1/2 miles from the center of town, said she was never called Saturday.

"If I had known, I would have closed," she said. "The customers and employees thought the dam was breaking and they were panicking."

The restaurant suffered no water damage, and she managed to calm the patrons and get them to safety in her four-wheel-drive truck, she said. Ms. Dooling, who lives on the premises of the 1790 log building, was surrounded by water yesterday but hoped to reopen by tomorrow or Thursday.

Matthew Huffman, 25, took advantage of yesterday's sunny skies to fire up a gas grill on the front porch of the Main Street home he rents.

After finding the contents of the freezer thawed and his home unheated, he decided to cook some deer steaks, a sirloin steak, hamburgers and hot dogs outdoors. "It's warmer out here," said Mr. Huffman, a carpenter, who evacuated Saturday with his wife, Elizabeth; 5 1/2 -month-old son, Dillon; and a dog and cat.

"They didn't warn us at all," he said, adding that he found his washer and dryer floating in his flooded basement. He also said that several wedding gifts he and his wife had stored there after their July wedding were ruined.

Jim Eder of the Red Cross disaster team said that the evacuation shelter at Bainbridge Elementary School was closed Sunday afternoon after serving 94 people. Evacuated residents had found other lodging, he added.

Scattered electrical problems were caused by frozen meters, but no major outages were reported, said town administrator Paul Kozloski.

But the Maryland Department of the Environment was called in because 400,000 to 500,000 gallons of raw sewage was discharged into the river over the weekend after a pump failed, he said. Yesterday, the agency brought in tankers to pump out basements where fuel oil had mixed with water.

The backbone of the emergency effort was the Water Witch Fire Company. Water Witch firefighters and those from other companies manned boats and donned water gear, working tirelessly throughout the weekend to evacuate the town of almost 700. "The firemen were so calming to us," Ms. Hott said.

While Water Witch firefighters were going door to door helping others, they lost equipment from their in-town fire station to the rising water. Yesterday, they were still tallying the missing items.

One firefighter, Donald Poist Jr., 41, also had damage to his Main Street home. "We had 40 inches [of water] in the living room and 50 inches in the kitchen," he said, adding that everything in the rooms was destroyed.

But the lifelong resident has no plans to leave the river town.

"The waters come and the waters go. The waters will come and go again."

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