Flood of complaints Fair warning?: Port Deposit, PECO need better communication on dam controls.

February 03, 1996

WHAT WE HAVE HERE is a lack of communication. That's the common explanation for what happened in last month's flooding of Port Deposit by the swollen Susquehanna River, a lapse that deserves serious attention.

Residents of the Cecil County town insist that PECO Energy Co. did not give adequate warning before opening most of the 52 flood gates on the Conowingo Dam that weekend to prevent the structure from cracking.

The resulting floodwaters damaged a third of Port Deposit's homes, buried vehicles in mud, forced raw sewage into the streets, smashed tethered boats and trapped people in their residences. Most important, however, there were no fatalities.

It was Maryland's worst flood in a quarter-century. Massive ice jams upriver made downstream flows at Conowingo unpredictable. The river's flow at peak was more than 20 times the January average.

What's obviously necessary is a clearly stated and understood emergency communications procedure between the town and the dam operator, and for each side to accept more responsibility than it did last month. Common sense should have prepared both company and the town well in advance for such a disaster, with reports of heavy flooding upstream a day earlier.

PECO says it set off alarms at the dam, called the Cecil County emergency center and tried to reach Port Deposit officials, who did not answer their phones. Mayor Erma Keetley says she tried repeatedly to get information on gate openings from the dam control room. Other officials blame the power company, which maintains it followed accepted procedures.

The power company should be in close contact with town authorities and with fire companies in such cases. Town officials need fulltime communications equipment to maintain contact. Cecil County must actively respond to such warnings, as well. The threatened lawsuit by Port Deposit against PECO for flood damages may delay such discussions. But they are needed, and sooner rather than later.

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