Dam blamed in aftermath of flood

January 26, 1996|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,SUN STAFF

Finger-pointing flared yesterday in Port Deposit, where residents cleaning up the mud and muck from their worst flood in a quarter-century blamed the neighboring Conowingo Dam for inadequate notice that the water was coming.

Mayor Erma Keetley said the town might sue PECO Energy Co., which operates the hydroelectric dam two miles up the Susquehanna River.

PECO officials said they coped with the emergency as best they could, building sandbag walls to protect the dam's machinery and mechanisms that control the floodgates.

"We tried desperately to slow the water down; if we hadn't done what we did, the mother of all waves would have pushed through and maybe destroyed the town," said PECO spokesman Michael Woods.

Town officials said 104 homes and apartments -- about a third of the town's residences -- were damaged and six homes destroyed by the water that surged through Port Deposit on Saturday after the dam's floodgates were opened.

A company official said Conowingo Dam set off alarms and sirens and notified Cecil County officials as soon as possible that Port Deposit would be flooded.

"This is not much comfort to the residents of Port Deposit, but [the flood] is the price they pay for living on the water," said Donald L. Tasky, a PECO representative.

Town Administrator Paul Kozloski said Port Deposit -- the first town downriver -- was "number seven" on a call list established by PECO within the last six months.

"This is not rocket science. This is common sense -- we should have been first on that list," he said.

"I am absolutely furious that we were not notified ahead of time," said Mayor Keetley. She said the dam did not call her or any other Port Deposit official with a warning. She said she was notified by a resident of water filling the streets, and began calling the dam herself.

"The control room operators told me they were not allowed to call us, so Saturday morning I started calling them every 20 minutes for an update," she said.

Not true, said Mr. Woods, who contended that control room operators had attempted to contact Mrs. Keetley at home Jan. 19 and Saturday but got no answer -- and no answering machine.

The dam also called the town hall on Saturday but got no answer, and expected Cecil's emergency operations center to notify the town to evacuate, he said.

David Culver, the Cecil County administrator, said he was notified Saturday morning that 20 of the dam's 52 floodgates were being opened but that it was not enough to flood Port Deposit.

At 3:45 Saturday afternoon, however, the dam declared a state of emergency, and began opening what eventually became 46 floodgates to keep the dam's massive wall intact from an "eight-foot wall of water," Mr. Tasky said. The gates are normally shut.

Mr. Culver said he was not notified of that step by PECO, but learned of it from another county official. He said it was the responsibility of the dam to notify the town, and that to his knowledge such a call was not made.

Mr. Woods said the plant manager's first call was to PECO's Philadelphia headquarters and his second to the county's emergency operations center. He contended it was the emergency operations center's responsibility to notify Port Deposit, as well as the state and local police departments, the fire house and other agencies.

The dam, built in 1928, should have warned the town at least 24 hours ahead of time because flooding had begun upriver in Harrisburg, Pa., on Jan. 19, from heavy rain and melting snow, Mr. Culver said.

But it was unknown how much damage in town could have been prevented by early warnings. There was no loss of human life, and no serious injury reported.

Officials from the federal and state emergency management agencies toured Port Deposit yesterday and planned to open an office there Saturday to help arrange government assistance. Meanwhile, the Red Cross was providing emergency relief for many of the 750 residents.

Most of the water had drained away, but raw sewage and mud clotted storm drains and yards. Residents along Main Street carried belongings, from clothes to furniture, outside to dry.

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