A giant's Slurpee

January 25, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE De GRACE -- A river, unlike a mountain, is not a static thing. Its size and strength can change suddenly. People who choose to live along a river need to be prepared for that, but many aren't.

As this is written on Monday, the Susquehanna is on the muscle. It's filled with ice like a giant's overturned Slurpee, rushing past Concord Point here and discharging into the Chesapeake at a rate not seen since 1972.

How fast is that? On a ''normal'' day -- if there is such a thing -- this big river dumps about 25 billion gallons into the bay, but a daily flow of 650 billion gallons a day has been recorded. Right now it's closer to the record than the norm, and it's awesome. Sightseers stare, and television cameras record breathless reporters babbling on the banks.

Condominiums clobbered

Havre de Grace, at the river's mouth, has had only minor damage. But Port Deposit, upstream at the fall line where the river is narrower and the banks steeper, has had more. Many houses near the river had to be evacuated, and the tony condominiums at the new Tom's Landing development, built on the old shipyard property where the tubes for Baltimore's Fort McHenry tunnel were fabricated, were pretty well clobbered by water and ice. Pennsylvania towns, including Harrisburg, fared much worse.

Everywhere, as after every natural disaster, there has been a stampede to find someone to blame. Even Erma Keetley, the generally level-headed mayor of Port Deposit, made the news and embarrassed some of her constituents by clucking about why ''they'' didn't tell her in advance that a lot of the Conowingo Dam's floodgates were going to be opened to let the rising water through.

Mrs. Keetley can be forgiven her inane remark. She's been around Port Deposit long enough to know that when there are torrential rains in eastern Pennsylvania, the runoff has to go somewhere, and one place it traditionally goes is through the streets of towns like hers along the Susquehanna. Dams may interrupt the flow, but they won't prevent it. Even newcomers to Port Deposit might have been expected to figure that out.

Susquehanna floods aren't exactly unprecedented. The Susquehannock Indians used to expect a big one about every 14 years. Truly major floods were recorded in 1865, 1889, 1904, 1936, 1940 and 1972. And those don't count the many famous ''ice gorges,'' which occurred regularly in the Maryland portion of the river before the Conowingo Dam was built in 1927. The last of those was in 1910.

An ice gorge took place when winter ice, breaking up and moving downstream, created a dam in one of the river's narrow valleys. When the rising water behind it eventually forced the dam aside, flood-borne ice was carried high onto the downstream banks, doing enormous damage -- far more than Port Deposit experienced this week.

After an ice gorge, rescues by boat from second-floor windows overlooking Port Deposit's main street were common. Many older houses in the town, in fact, have holes in the upstairs floors to facilitate drainage. It also used to be said that native Port Deposit children were occasionally born with webbed feet, but that's unconfirmed. The point is, if you're going to live in a place where floods are common, even the Corps of Engineers can't guarantee that you'll always be dry.

Flood commands the flood

But ever since King Canute ordered the tide not to rise, faith in authority's ability to control powerful natural phenomena has died hard. Back in 1972, the aptly named Congressman Dan Flood appeared at a news conference in his native Wilkes-Barre to announce that ''I have ordered the Army Corps of Engineers not to permit the Susquehanna to rise one more inch.''

As it happened, Susan Q. Stranahan reports in her definitive book ''Susquehanna: River of Dreams,'' the river decided to stop rising about that time, leaving the Corps relieved and Congressman Flood's self-esteem enormously enhanced. He hustled back to Washington and got a staggering $2.2 billion in federal flood-relief funds hosed into Wilkes-Barre's Wyoming Valley.

This was nearly double the total federal expenditure nationwide on the country's five previous natural disasters, and it turned into something of a scandal. The Small Business Administration, for example, made some $40 million in low-interest loans which were never repaid. Subsequently, thanks to the Flood flood, federal disaster-relief rules were tightened.

You might think that people living in the Susquehanna valley and other flood-prone areas might purchase flood insurance, but only one in five households in the area have it. This suggests a widespread cognitive dissonance, the irrational but firm belief that ''it can't possibly happen to me.''

High tide here was three hours ago, and from my window it looks as though the river has dropped a little. Probably the worst is past. If you're looking for riverfront property, this might be a good time to buy.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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