Ivan's Aftermath

Flooding less severe than expected

Damage limited to wet cellars and backed-up drains

Port Deposit

September 21, 2004|By Liz F. Kay and Ted Shelsby | Liz F. Kay and Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

PORT DEPOSIT - Disaster was averted yesterday for residents of this 19th-century town in Northeast Maryland, as floodwaters from the rain-swollen Susquehanna River crested and began to recede without causing the widespread destruction that had been feared.

Damage appeared limited to flooded basements and backed-up storm drains as water - fed by a planned release at the Conowingo Dam five miles to the north - lapped over the river's banks. Parts of Main Street also were flooded.

Water never rose above the railroad tracks, which lie between the riverbank and most of the homes and businesses, however, and there were no reported injuries.

"Compared to what we were looking at around midnight, when the sun came up in the morning, this was a pretty lucky town," Mike Dixon, a spokesman for the Cecil County Department of Emergency Services, said yesterday. "The sun is shining, the birds are flying out over the river, there's a guy canoeing down Main Street just for the heck of it - yeah, we got lucky this time."

The town, once a port of deposit for the lumber industry, had been declared in a "state of emergency" on Sunday by local officials, and residents in the low-lying north end were asked to evacuate. Officials braced for cresting floodwaters caused by weekend rain over Pennsylvania associated with the remnants of Hurricane Ivan.

Officials of Exelon Corp., which owns and operates the Conowingo hydroelectric dam, on Sunday opened 33 of its 50 crest gates - a number not opened since flooding in 1996. By comparison, all 50 were opened to accommodate flows during the remnants of Hurricane Agnes in 1972.

The 33 gates remained open at midafternoon yesterday to adjust for fluctuations in energy demand and the flow that powers the dam's 11 hydroelectric turbines. By 2 p.m., water flow had decreased about 80 cubic feet per second from its peak to 494 cubic feet per second, said Exelon spokesman Ben Armstrong.

The highest flow of water through the dam took place between 9 a.m. and noon, he said.

He said the dam operators had no choice but to open the gates. "Federal regulations require us to maintain the natural flow of the river," he said.

If no crest gates were opened, water would rise until it came over the top of the dam, and pressure could potentially increase until the dam, which was opened in 1928, failed, Armstrong said.

The Susquehanna crested as much as 6 feet over flood stage, according to the National Weather Service.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. toured the area by helicopter and foot yesterday, and declared it a "limited disaster area." He said Federal Emergency Management Agency officials would visit the area today, which could prompt the freeing up of federal funds for those with damaged property.

Walking with Mayor Robert Flayhart, Ehrlich said "It looks like Port Deposit dodged the bullet, right?"

"You're right, governor," Flayhart said. "But if they had had to open more floodgates [at the dam] the whole north end of town would have been hit a lot harder."

While many rivers and streams across Maryland are running high, particularly in Western Maryland, rain is not forecast for the rest of the week, giving them time to drain, said Wendy McPherson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Geological Survey.

"It looks like we're out of the biggest threat right now," McPherson said. "It's not going to get worse. If we had another hurricane ready to pounce on us we might be in trouble."

In Port Deposit, volunteer firefighters went from home to home yesterday searching for propane and other fuel tanks knocked loose by the water, as the estimated 200 residents who had evacuated began to return.

Many residents had gone to stay with friends and relatives on high ground. Others waited out the flood in the second and third floors of their homes. The population in the Red Cross shelter set up at Bainbridge Elementary School never topped eight people, although officials were prepared to handle up to 140.

Those people moved to the Red Cross shelter in Elkton to allow Bainbridge and other Cecil County schools to open on time, although school buses were not operating in the north end of town.

The residents found ways around the water on Main Street - by walking on the railroad tracks, driving through in four-wheel-drive vehicles or paddling a canoe - as they checked on their neighbors.

Gordon Wiley, who moved to Port Deposit's Main Street about six years ago, rode a bike through one water-logged segment of Main Street with his daughter, Lisa Claire, and his son, Chas.

"I don't let stuff like that worry me," he said about the flooding. He had, however, checked the engine of his boat - parked on a trailer in his yard - to make sure it was ready in case the water got too high.

Solona Quinn, who has lived in Port Deposit for 32 years, said the water flooded the basement of her Main Street house and the back yard but didn't reach the first floor.

"We sat up all night and watched it. You live in Port Deposit, you expect to get wet," she said.

Port Deposit occupies a narrow strip of land wedged between the Susquehanna and granite cliffs, leaving it vulnerable to flooding. Yesterday's flooding was not as severe as flooding in the region in July, said Deputy Mayor Kerry Anne Abrams.

"We're thankful for the minimal damage that it has caused so far," Abrams said.

Perry Poist, a 73-year-old town councilman and former mayor, said Port Deposit had survived years of regular flooding before the hydroelectric dam was constructed in 1928.

Poist said the warm, dry weather - very different than the pouring rain or sleet that usually precede a flood -made the conditions easier to deal with, psychologically.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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