Port Deposit stands fast in face of possible danger

Resolute townspeople refuse to evacuate homes because of unstable wall

February 11, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

PORT DEPOSIT -- Donald Poist has lived his entire life in this scenic old Susquehanna River town, which is slowly recovering from a weeklong scare that the granite bedrock under one of its streets might give way.

"I've been through more floods than I can count. [Tropical Storm] Agnes in 1972 -- I watched the water creep up the walls of our first floor inch by inch," said Poist, a 72-year-old town councilman and former mayor.

"Then there was that flood in 1996," he said. "We had 2 1/2 feet of water in our home. I didn't have time to get the motor off the furnace. We had to kiss it goodbye."

Such trials may explain why about 35 townspeople ignored a recommended evacuation despite the threat of the collapse of a century-old retaining wall that might have led to the destruction of their homes.

"We're about as tough as the Port Deposit granite used to build that wall," Poist said of the three-story wall behind a section of homes along Main Street. The wall holds back a hill leading up to High Street and beyond to the former Bainbridge Naval Training Center.

Poist's home is on Main Street, but it was not in the area endangered by a possible rockslide. "But I can relate to those people," he said, "because we've had our own disasters over the years. Nobody likes to leave their home. You become attached to it. It's your castle. I understand those people staying. We're a hearty group of people."

Bill Eldred's home sits below the most seriously damaged section of the retaining wall. "We're not foolish people," he said, as he stood in the back yard of his next-door neighbor's house, shadowed by the high stone wall. "It was a reasonable decision."

He pointed out that the wall was built like a giant set of steps. "The wall drops down, and there's a step across. It drops again, and there is another step; then another drop and a third step.

"Even if the whole wall collapsed, it would not likely reach our homes," he said, noting that his home is about 100 feet from the base of the wall.

Kerry Anne Abrams, the town's deputy mayor and a resident of High Street, said she stayed for the same reasons everyone else did: "It's been my home all my life. I knew my home was on a sold rock foundation. It wasn't going anywhere."

She said her neighbors stayed because "they felt more comfortable being in their homes, where they could see what was going on. They could watch what was happening."

Abrams said residents would have been more upset if they had been ordered to leave. "It's the unknown which scares people," she said. "This way, people knew what was happening.

All of the residents with houses on High Street affected by the damage seemed to have gone to work as usual yesterday.

If they had been home, they would have been able watch as a group of engineers and geologists continued to assess the damage and planned a strategy to make repairs to the street, which is about a third of the way up the hill behind Main Street.

Abrams said the cracks in the road in front of her home --the first signs last week that something was wrong -- were patched yesterday.

Mayor Robert Flayhart said that workers from the Cecil County Department of Public Works were using high-pressure air hoses to clean out the cracks and that they were then being sealed with a rubber-like substance to keep water out.

Water seeping into cracks along the road and then expanding when it freezes is being blamed for the damage to High Street and to the retaining wall.

Flayhart said he feared that the single-lane bridge on High Street that leads to the last house at the end of the street might fall.

A piece of the bridge fell into the stream below Thursday night. "It has been making cracking sounds all day," Flayhart said. "The rest could fall anytime."

Little else has changed since Monday, the mayor said. There have been no signs of further bulging in the retaining wall and no new cracks in High Street.

He said that motion detection equipment that was being monitored hourly is now being checked twice a day. There has been no sign of any movement of the ground, he said.

High Street residents are allowed to say in their homes, but they must park their cars down below along Main Street.

Flayhart said that a golf cart, which he and other town officials jokingly refer to as "the Lincoln Continental" is being used to shuttle residents up the hill to their homes. The golf cart was donated by David Read, one of the owners of Tome's Landing Marina, just across Main Street from the bulging retaining wall.

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