Patapsco Valley residents remember destruction of 1972 storm

NEIGHBORS

June 19, 2000|By William Lowe | William Lowe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

THE FIRST DAY of summer in 1972 was dreary and rainy, but by almost all accounts not foreboding. Even the warnings of potential flooding on the evening news caused few to worry. But by nightfall, the rain turned to a steady downpour, and a storm named Agnes began her destructive trek through the Patapsco Valley.

Patapsco Valley State Park rangers Jim Preston and Gardner Webster set out from the Orange Grove office just after 10 that night. The final tasks of the evening needed to be completed despite the rain. After locking the Gun Road gate, the men proceeded through the park toward Ilchester Road. At Bloedie Dam, the water had risen to the road. The rangers drove their truck through to Ilchester, but with no time to spare.

"If we'd been any later, we probably would have been two victims of that flood," Preston said.

At 1 a.m., park Superintendent Charles Jackson called park secretary Margaret Bennett, alerting the Relay resident to the force of the storm.

"He said there was a strong chance that Liberty Dam would break," Bennett said. "I never went back to sleep that night."

From her house on a hill high above Thomas Viaduct, Bennett listened to the driving rain and waited for morning. Before daybreak, she heard two loud explosions and saw a great flash of light. Two high-tension electric towers had fallen under the force of the flood, strewing metal and wire along the rail tracks.

In the morning rain, Bennett stood on her hillside and surveyed the destruction. The Patapsco rushed wildly below, but the old viaduct had withstood the flood. Little else along the river fared as well.

"That flood broke my heart," said Bennett, who served as the park's secretary for 36 years. "I could look over the river and see the damage to the park."

From his Rockburn Hill house in Elkridge, Paul Guercio expected trouble. If the Patapsco flooded, the road would wash out, cutting Guercio off and keeping him from making his next haul of cattle. Trying to prevent this, Guercio moved his tractor-trailer under the Interstate 95 overpass on River Road and trudged home in the rain.

At home, Guercio listened in horror to the screaming sound made by the Avalon Bridge as its steel girders collapsed. After daybreak, Guercio climbed up to the I-95 overpass to see how his truck had weathered the storm.

"The water must have been 20 feet above the Rockburn Bridge," Guercio said. "My truck was underwater, too, of course."

Peggy Ford of Elkridge spent the early hours of June 22 listening to the police scanner. She heard stories of destruction, evacuation and fear.

That morning, after the rain had tapered to a drizzle, Ford visited her workplace, I&R Equipment on Washington Boulevard. An oil tanker had washed down from upriver and lodged in the company's office. Floodwater swirled outside and inside the building. In the coming weeks, Ford would spend hour upon hour retyping invoices to replace the mud-caked originals.

All along the Patapsco, after Agnes, the summer solstice signifies more than a change of seasons. In Ellicott City, it marks the anniversary of the time when Main Street was underwater, when the bridge over the Patapsco washed away, when the historic Ellicott House succumbed to the river. Most tragically, the coming of summer evokes the memory of the seven victims who drowned in the Patapsco in June 1972.

It terms of destructive force, the 1972 flood exceeded that of 1868. Fifty people died in the flood of 1868, compared with seven in 1972. Only a century of improvements in communications and emergency response prevented Agnes from matching or exceeding the earlier flood's cost in human lives. These improvements, however, achieved little toward protecting property.

In Ellicott City, costs to businesses exceeded $1 million. I&R Equipment and Adley Express in Elkridge suffered combined damage of $2 million. At Daniels, the $2.7 million in damage to the mill complex brought about the demise of the C. R. Daniels Co. Damage to Patapsco Valley State Park approached $2 million, with the Avalon and Orange Grove areas hit particularly hard.

`Bye, Bye, Birdie'

On June 9 and 10, Patapsco Middle School pupils achieved a rare accomplishment for students at their grade levels: the successful production of a full-scale musical.

Patapsco's production of "Bye, Bye, Birdie" at Mount Hebron High School included a pit orchestra, singing and dancing. Staff members joined one of the musical numbers. Patapsco teachers Jillian Downs and Judy Templeton directed the production. Principal Carol Moshberg praised the efforts of all involved in making the production a success.

"It was especially wonderful to students who might not excel academically to do so in another arena, as a performer or stagehand," Moshberg said.

Flag Day

Deep Run Elementary School in Elkridge held a Flag Day celebration Wednesday.

All the school's pupils assembled outside, with each group carrying a class flag.

Fifth-grade pupils in Scout uniforms raised the national flag while the school band played "The Star-Spangled Banner." The ceremony concluded with the whole school singing of "You're a Grand Old Flag."

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