Flooding threatens Port Deposit as dam opens

Heavy rains from Ivan swelled Susquehanna

Port Deposit in path of flood after Conowingo Dam opens

September 20, 2004|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

PORT DEPOSIT - Waters of the rain-swollen Susquehanna River cascaded through floodgates opened yesterday in the Conowingo Dam, but many residents of this downstream town were not about to budge - despite city officials declaring a state of emergency and "strongly" recommending an evacuation.

Some said they couldn't bear to leave behind pets. Others said they wanted to ride out the rising waters with friends, cranking heavy-metal tunes and downing cans of beer.

Still others said they had survived past floods, including the devastation that followed what was left of Hurricane Agnes in 1972, and that they would make it through the remnants of Hurricane Ivan.

About 5 p.m., shortly after managers of the hydroelectric dam said they would open 35 of its 53 floodgates, emergency personnel cruising up and down Main Street in sport utility vehicles called out for residents to leave the town's low-lying north end.

"Attention, we are strongly urging everyone to evacuate now," stated the recorded message, blaring repeatedly. "If you need transportation, report to Town Hall."

Officials at the dam said they must open floodgates because of rising water from the storm - a gradual process that results in higher water below it. At 9 p.m., 32 gates were open. Officials said a total of 35 gates would be open sometime between midnight and 4 a.m., with flooding expected to crest before dawn.

But that was not enough to send 39-year-old Bonnie Perkins to higher ground - at least not yet.

"I'm not leaving unless I have to," said the lifelong resident of North Main Street. Perkins and her five children, ages 5 to 17, had packed three vehicles with belongings by about 6 o'clock last night, but they were delaying their departure.

While they waited, Perkins instructed her oldest son, Matthew Pierce, to secure a blue tarp over a sofa, which they had hefted onto the roof of the house to keep it dry.

"We've been through this so many times," Perkins said.

Down the road, where loud rock music blasted from an unseen stereo system, three women stood across the street from a twig-strewn pond of floodwater and sipped cold drinks. They said they wouldn't leave their homes - not without their pets.

"We've got animals, cats and dogs," said Vickie Moore, 47. "I can't go leaving my animals behind."

Moore had her own high ground, however - a third-floor apartment. She and others with living space above ground level said they didn't expect the waters to rise high enough to cause significant damage.

But state and local emergency officials were taking no chances, given the prediction of water cresting high over the banks along the historic town, with a population of about 700.

"Flooding is going to increase throughout the night as the Conowingo Dam opens more gates," said Mike Dixon, a spokesman for the Cecil County Department of Emergency Services.

John Droneburg, director of the state Emergency Management Agency, said officials expected the river to rise several feet over flood stage and that the low-lying town was the main area of concern for flooding in the state.

Port Deposit, in northeastern Maryland, is about 5 miles below Conowingo. Police closed access to the north end of town, except for locals or those willing to go on foot. Routes 222 and 276 were also closed to all but local traffic.

Preparations for flooding started about noon, when town officials first urged a voluntary evacuation for the north end. But few residents left their homes, and those who left did not head for an emergency shelter at Bainbridge Elementary School on high ground.

By 11:30 p.m., county officials estimated that about 40 percent of residents in the north end of town had left - but only three people were at the shelter.

"If they didn't go there, they must be staying with friends or family," said Mike Browne, deputy director of the Cecil County Department of Emergency Services, who was not surprised that people were taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"These are people who are seasoned with this kind of disaster," he said. "People who have lived here for generations have seen floods come and go."

Maggie Johnson, 78, is one of them. A lifelong resident, she said her earliest recollection of flooding was when she was 10 years old and an ice surge forced evacuations.

"We had to leave the house in a hurry," she said yesterday between shifts at the Water Witch Fire Company where she and other women were making chicken salad and grilled sausages for volunteer firefighters. "I can't even remember how many days it was before we could go home again."

That was 1936. Since then, there have been other ice surges, including one in 1996 that also caused significant damage. The remnants of Hurricane Agnes brought a wall of water that shut down the town for weeks.

"I was here for all of them," Johnson said. "I think Agnes was the worst. There was so much mud."

As darkness fell last night, residents watched the slow - and most unwelcome - creep of water into their homes.

"It's coming in the house pretty steady now," said Richard Boyd on North Main Street, who decided to stay behind with his kitten. "The back bedroom is under water, and everyone is gone except for me and Bootsie."

Boyd, 53, also shares the large house with three other people - all of whom left earlier in the day due to ill health. He said he retreated to his upstairs bedroom about 8 p.m. to stay dry. He said he had stashed food and water in the room so that he could stay there for several days.

"I'm going to shut off the power soon," Boyd said in a telephone call to The Sun. "I will be here in the dark, just me and Bootsie."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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