Downstream and doused

People near the Patuxent take precautions as dam opens

June 28, 2006|By ANNIE LINSKEY AND MICHAEL DRESSER | ANNIE LINSKEY AND MICHAEL DRESSER,SUN REPORTERS

As a wall of white water gushed from slits near the top of the T. Howard Duckett Dam, a Laurel business just downstream was surrounded on three sides by water from the rain-swollen Patuxent River. Waves lapped against the front steps.

Even though Bill N. Polizos, owner of Progressive Rent a Car, said, "We're like a post office, we're always open," he then had to explain yesterday to a customer on the phone why this week's deluge and the nearby dam meant he couldn't clean a car that the customer wanted.

"Have you been watching the news? We're flooded now," he said. "Our whole parking lot is under water. I haven't had the opportunity to prepare or clean a vehicle."

Officials at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which operates the dam and the brimming Rocky Gorge Reservoir, began a controlled release of water from the floodgates late Monday. They let go of more than 2 billion gallons, causing the Patuxent River to swell into parking lots and to threaten low-lying establishments in Laurel.

Polizos said he started moving his cars to higher ground Monday night. If he hadn't, he estimated that he would have suffered $100,000 in damage.

At the dam, about 100 million gallons of water an hour gushed through the floodgates all day yesterday, said Tom Heikkinen, chief of plant operations. Dam officials hoped to close the gates today.

The release prevented recent rainwater from spilling over the top or going around the 840-foot- long structure. "We can't stop the flooding. What we can do is delay it and give time to evacuate," Heikkinen said.

"Normally, you just see concrete," he said, pointing to the sheet of foamy white spewing though the gates near the top of the 134-foot-high dam.

Officials opened six of the seven floodgates, leaving the seventh closed because the chain that opens it was broken. One of the gates was open 30 inches yesterday afternoon, and five were open 6 inches. Each gate can open 80 inches.

"We just adjust the levels that come out of the other gates," said Jim Neustadt, spokesman for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

Despite the malfunctioning chain and the increased pressure on the dam, officials said, the 53-year-old structure is in no danger of collapsing.

"The dam is strong and safe," Heikkinen said.

About 19,000 people live in the floodplain downstream from the dam, and Heikkinen said there would be a "tremendous consequence" if the dam were to fail.

The T. Howard Duckett Dam is one of 66 dams in Maryland considered "high hazard" - a classification that reflects the potential loss of life and property from a failure rather than an assessment of structural integrity.

The Maryland Department of the Environment sent an engineer to examine the Duckett dam yesterday, said Chuck Gates, a spokesman.

The release of water beginning Monday has allowed six times as much water as usual to flow though, officials said. The Patuxent swelled from 25 feet to over 100 feet wide in places, toppling trees and rushing over picnic tables and garbage cans.

A few blocks down, Robert Caswell, 33, watched the river rage with some neighbors. "We go though this every year," he said. "It's been like a tourist attraction."

But Caswell criticized the dam officials, calling them "morons" for not opening the gates sooner.

"It rained all day on Sunday and they just let [the water] out at 11 p.m. Monday!" he said. "If they let it trickle down earlier, it probably wouldn't look like this," he said, gesturing to the deluge of brown water flowing yards from his home.

Neustadt, the spokesman for the commission, defended the timing on opening the gates, saying that the reservoir had been at near-drought levels before the weekend rainstorm and that it filled up faster than anticipated.

"It just came down in drenching proportions," Neustadt said. "You are all of a sudden looking at one day with a little bit of rain on Saturday and then record rains on Sunday and Monday."

The effects of the flooding could be felt below the dam as parking lots filled with water.

At one spot, a man used a video camera to film the water.

"There's some concern," said Scott Clark, 43, a mechanic at Fred Frederick Auto Body in Laurel. Water surrounded two sides of the workshop. Most cars had been moved out of the shop Monday night, but two vehicles remained inside, propped up on concrete blocks and trailers.

"The last time this happened, [water] came through the shop," Clark said, referring to three years ago.

The shop was designed to accommodate flooding. Clark pointed to gates near the building's baseboards that allow receding water to flow out.

Barry Sacks, a manager at American Legion Post 60, surveyed the flooded parking lot outside his hall and joked about bringing a kayak out. It was the second time this summer the lot had flooded, and Sacks didn't understand what the big deal was. "It's never been evacuated" in recent years, he said, gesturing toward the hall.

Some who have lived on the Patuxent River for a long time also weren't alarmed. "It would have to be pretty bad for us to leave," said Tammy Meyer, 30, who has lived in Laurel near the river for 20 years. "The only people who evacuate from here are the people who've been here less than a year."

Carreen Koubek, a spokeswoman for the city of Laurel, said 37 people sought shelter at the Laurel Community Center on Cypress Road Monday night and that the facility was to be ready if needed last night.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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