Westernport waits for the waters Western Md. towns know floods will return

September 29, 1996|By Debbie M. Price | Debbie M. Price,SUN STAFF

WESTERNPORT -- The kitchen is a pile of splintered red boards at the back of the house; the refrigerator, stove, washer and dryer were all whisked away on the suddenly raging tide of little George's Creek.

The double garage, too, is gone without a trace.

What's left of Daniel Taylor's blue clapboard house is filled with mud and the stench of utter loss.

"We didn't have the best looking house," says Taylor, who has lived all his 61 years on Front Street in Westernport, "but it was comfortable, and it was paid for."

"It was home."

Taylor was one of many whose homes were destroyed or severely damaged in the newest woe to set upon this beautiful but impoverished far corner of Western Maryland.

Two weeks after the fourth flood in 15 months, those living along George's Creek find themselves with little to salvage and little aid to rebuild.

What's more, residents fear that come the next inevitable flooding rain, the once-benign stream, choked with the debris of its earlier tantrums, will finally carry their simple towns away.

"We cannot take another hit. There won't be any small towns left," Allegany County Commissioner Dale Lewis told Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett at a meeting last week to discuss ways to prevent future floods along George's Creek.

"Sooner or later, there won't be a Lonaconing, a Midland, a Moscow. Westernport won't have a business district."

George's Creek threads its way through what once were mining towns along Route 36, running under the streets in Lonaconing, along the CSX railroad tracks, through the woods and past modest frame houses more than 100 years old, to finally empty into the Potomac River at Westernport.

The creek is normally so small that it doesn't even rate a blue line on standard state highway maps.

Yet when heavy rains spawned by Hurricane Fran fell for several hours on Sept. 6, the stream turned into a raging wall of water that plowed through the little Allegany County towns along its banks, washing out bridges and carrying away buildings, cars and, for some, life savings.

"Everybody was hollering, 'It's coming down,' " said Irene Parker, a 54-year-old Westernport housekeeper.

"I started gathering up this and that, but in the end, all I took was my pocketbook and the dog all that hard-earned money, gone."

Boulders in the street

In Lonaconing, where Jackson Run meets George's Creek, the rushing water piled boulders six feet high in the middle of Jackson Street and ripped off the corner of the Republican Club, the state's oldest and largest such club, leaving its bowling lanes lying in the streambed.

Bonnie Russell, a young widow with two small children, was flooded out of the apartment she has rented for four years across Jackson Street from the Lonaconing Town Hall, which also was swept clean of computer equipment and furniture by the floodwaters.

"We lost everything," said Russell. "What can you say?"

In Westernport, George's Creek ate away huge chunks of riverbank, taking with it garages and the backs of almost a dozen houses, some of them more than 100 years old.

Local officials fear that the creek, its beds raised by silt, rocks and fallen trees, is inadequate to handle the runoff of even a moderately heavy rainfall.

They are requesting immediate assistance to clean out the debris and open clogged passages under bridges and roads along the roughly 16 miles from Frostburg to Westernport.

"In order to put an end to this, we're going to have to have substantial resources to come in and remove the debris and dredge out the beds of these creeks," said Casper R. Taylor Jr., speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates and a Democrat representing Allegany County.

Clearing the rocks and trees almost certainly will provide a measure of relief in the event of a smaller flood.

But such work is a temporary fix at best, say state environmental officials, who note that there is no easy, quick or inexpensive answer.

"Generally dredging is not a practical, long-term solution, and it gives people a false sense of security," said James Kahl, a water resources supervisor with the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Move or be flooded

As Kahl notes, the creek bed is not large enough to handle the volume of water that results from sudden rainfall or heavy runoff from melting snow, making it "not a question of if but when" the towns along George's Creek will be flooded again.

"I'd like to be able to tell people that we can minimize the problem," Kahl said, "but the bottom line is that people are living in the flood plain and, unless we can find ways to help them move, they're going to get flooded."

Measured against the scope of other federal disasters, such as the destruction wrought by Hurricane Fran in North Carolina, the damage to Allegany and Frederick counties is limited and isolated.

And there is the rub. Small disasters beget small pots of federal relief money.

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