High hopes for flood-control money

Port Deposit awaits President Bush's OK on a bill to pay for operation of an early-warning system for Susquehanna River towns

November 27, 2005|By TED SHELSBY | TED SHELSBY,SUN REPORTER

PORT DEPOSIT -- When it rains, Rob Flayhart gets nervous.

Even last week's showers, the result of a wave of storms moving slowly across the Northeast, had the mayor of this small town on the Susquehanna River feeling uneasy.

He knows that heavy rains in Pennsylvania or New York can have serious consequences on his town of 700 residents.

So Flayhart is anxiously awaiting President Bush's signature on a bill that would allocate money for an early-warning flood system serving towns along the 444-mile Susquehanna River - from Cooperstown in upstate New York to Havre de Grace at the top of the Chesapeake Bay.

The bill contains $2 million to improve and operate a flood forecasting and warning system managed by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, a multistate federal agency. The system issues flood warnings to more than 1,000 communities in three states.

Funding for the system has been cut in recent years, raising fears that its equipment would become outdated or that the service might disappear.

Elected officials in Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania are hoping this year will be different.

"We expect the president to sign it in the next two weeks," Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, said of the bill.

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission, based in Harrisburg, Pa., operates the flood warning system in partnership with the Army Corp of Engineers, the National Weather Service and the U.S. Geological Survey. The commission gives Mikulski much of the credit for getting the proposed funding this far.

"She had the support of Pennsylvania lawmakers, but Mikulski was definitely the champion of this bill," said Susan Obleski, a commission spokeswoman.

"The Susquehanna system is about saving lives and saving communities," said Mikulski.

In each of the past two years, the federal government eliminated from the budget the approximately $1.5 million to operate the flood system. Instead of funding the program directly, Congress told the National Weather Service to pay for the system from its budget - without giving the agency additional funds.

Obleski said there was concern that funding for the system would disappear.

"That would be disastrous," said Flayhart. "It's hard to express the importance of the system to this town - it's that important."

He said it is "the difference between giving town residents advanced warning of a flood and having them hit blindside."

Flayhart credits the system for saving Port Deposit from serious damage last year when remnants of Hurricane Ivan swept through Maryland.

"It allowed us to give residents a nearly 24-hour notice of possible flooding," he said. "It gave people time to prepare. They had time to move things out of the basement to the first floor. ... It also gave people time to evacuate."

With an estimate of how much water was heading their way, operators of the Conowingo Dam, about 5 miles north of town, were able to reduce the size of the pond behind the dam to make way for the coming water.

More important, the Corps of Engineers held back 135 billion gallons of water at its 14 flood-control reservoirs in New York and Pennsylvania.

The additional volume would have added 7 percent more water to the already swollen flow of the Susquehanna.

To handle that much more water, the Conowingo operators would have been forced to increase the number of floodgates opened from 36 to 39.

"That would have flooded the entire north end of town," said Flayhart. "It would have flooded about 75 percent of our homes. Without the warnings and the actions taken to hold back the water we would have had a major disaster on our hands."

Despite these efforts, commission officials estimate that Ivan did about $300 million in damage throughout the river basin, including $1 million here.

By holding back the floodwater, the corps prevented more than $1.6 billion in additional damage to homes and businesses in the 27,000-square-mile river basin.

"It prevented a lot of hardship and agony here," said Flayhart.

ted.shelsby@baltsun.com

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