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The Baltimore Sun

Agnes recalled with awe 40 years later

At about 2 a.m. on June 22, 1972, Kevin Ford, 17, answered a knock at the door of his family's row home on the banks of the Patapsco River in Oella — the same home his grandparents first moved to in 1912 — to find a couple of Baltimore County police officers standing in the wind and the rain.

They were there with a warning: Flood gates upstream at the Liberty Reservoir were about to be opened to alleviate the pressure caused by all the rain Tropical Storm Agnes had been dumping on the region, and Ford's riverside home wasn't safe.

The teenager's parents were out of town. So he and one of his aunts quickly gathered a few belongings and headed, half-asleep, into the storm to the home of another of Ford's aunts on Old Frederick Road.

The entire experience was jolting, Ford recalls.

"You're 17. You don't know what's going on. It's raining really hard and you can't see. And they're telling you to get out, because they don't know what's going to happen," said Ford, now 57 and living in the same home.

The next morning, he wound his way back through Oella's hills — past the W.J. Dickey & Sons Textile Mill, just upstream from his home — to find the raging storm waters had radically changed the landscape.

The river was wider than he'd ever seen it, and had torn through and covered one of its banks where Ford's family had long strung clothes lines in front of their home.

"The water got high enough that it washed the bank away and the back of the garages fell out, and the garages were right here in front of the house," Ford said.

Such was the immediate and sudden presence in the old mill town of Tropical Storm Agnes, an episode of massive destruction that would become one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit Maryland and one of the costliest storms in the nation's history, with billions of dollars in estimated damages.

Locally, the storm, which had been a hurricane in the south, submerged the lower end of nearby historic Ellicott City in flood waters and wreaked havoc in other low-lying areas of the county and region, destroying homes and businesses and washing out bridges and roadways.

The storm dropped an estimated 10 to 14 inches of rain on Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania and caused massive flooding from North Carolina to New York. It killed seven people along the Patapsco River, a total of 19 in Maryland and 122 along the East Coast, according to reports from local newspapers and the National Weather Service.

In the Baltimore area, Agnes caused thousands to be evacuated from the Jones Falls Valley and other low-lying areas, including Lansdowne.

Electricity and phone service were knocked out for thousands. Millions of gallons of sewage spilled into waterways from disturbed pipes and plants in Savage and elsewhere. The state issued warnings for people to boil their water, and President Richard Nixon declared the state a disaster area, according to local reports.

Today, 40 years later, the storm is remembered for its power and scope, and remains a key benchmark for local disasters. While the legacies of other great floods in the area, like those in 1868, 1923 and 1952, have largely faded, those who lived through Agnes remember its wrath.

"The flood waters did such devastation in that area where the bridge into Ellicott City was, it was just amazing," said Charles Wagandt, the great-grandson of William J. Dickey, who purchased Oella at auction in 1887 and started the mill.

Memories remain

Wagandt had purchased another mill and mill town, Dickeyville, on the Gwynns Falls near Woodlawn, just 36 hours before Agnes wiped out a bridge to the small town, leaving it completely isolated.

In 1973, Wagandt made another purchase, this time of a large portion of Oella, much of it damaged by Agnes the year prior.

"I thought it'd be an interesting challenge," he said, of rebuilding the damaged, historic town.

Throughout the county, those with distinct memories of the storm recall how it impacted their lives.

Wagandt said the flood waters destroyed a few historic frame houses in Oella, severely eroded the banks of the river and breached the mill race.

Connie Hodges, who lived in Irvington, said her father was at a nursing care facility in Catonsville at the time, and she would "faithfully visit him every day after work, until Agnes hit."

Hodges remembers driving along Frederick Road on June 22 when suddenly, the water along the road started to rise, and she had to turn back, she said.

Much to his frustration, she couldn't visit her father for days, she said.

Marian Fletcher, of Woodlawn, was in graduate school at theUniversity of Maryland, College Park, at the time, studying human development. She remembers starting home from College Park and realizing several bridges along Route 1 — the only route she knew — had been destroyed.

Her only alternate was the high speed highway that ran parallel to the main road into College Park.

"I had never driven (Interstate) 95 in my life," she said during an interview this spring at the Catonsville Senior Center, and she was scared.

Fletcher was well into her adulthood at the time — she wouldn't give her current age — and felt a bit awkward asking her fellow, younger students for help, she said.

But a young male student took out a pencil and drew her a map for how to get home to Woodlawn using Interstate 95, she said, and she'll never forget the kindness.

Ford, of Oella, remembers seeing a smoke stack from a boiler room at the mill dislodged and sitting in the middle of the mill yard, and wondering how so much damage would ever get fixed.

"You're looking out here across from the house toward the railroad tracks on the Howard County side, and there was this island that separated that side of the river and this side. It used to be really nice over there, maple trees and grass and all that," he said. "Man, that was gone."

The extent of the damage was "just unreal," he said.

Ford chuckled at the thought of another memory, with a bit of mischief in his voice.

"Up in Daniels, they had a beer warehouse, a liquor warehouse, and, of course, that washed out up there, and oh my goodness, after it receded and everything went down here, there were kegs of beer all strung through the river," he said.

The storm also made points along the Patapsco much deeper, making it great for going out with friends and enjoying the river in the years following the storm, Ford said.

"It's different now. All the kids now that would have been my age at the time, all they know is video games and stuff like that," he said. "But we used to have a good time up here, swimming in the river."

Improvements and preparations

The world that Agnes rushed through was indeed a different one from today, many noted.

The local highway system was much less developed, the science behind the identification of historical flood plains wasn't as accurate, and channels of communication — early-warning systems, cell phones, social media — were woefully inadequate or nonexistent.

Local emergency responders also had far less equipment.

"Technology and communications has greatly improved since then," said Lt. Jay Ringgold, a spokesman for the Baltimore County Fire Department who has worked in emergency management for the county for the last six years.

The county now has better water-level gauges along its streams and waterways, more emergency response equipment, a reverse-911 call system to spread warnings, and email lists for home and business owners in low-lying areas, Ringgold said.

There are also mutual aid agreements with surrounding jurisdictions and better relationships with the National Weather Service and other federal agencies, he said.

The county has swift water rescue teams, including the Advanced Tactical Rescue Team at the Texas Station and units with the Kingsville and Arbutus volunteer fire companies.

The county also has a Hazard Mitigation Plan, and has taken steps since Agnes to purchase properties within the 100-year flood plain to minimize the number of vulnerable structures in the county, Ringgold said.

"Tropical Storm Lee (last year) was probably the closest next to Agnes as far as stream level flooding," Ringgold said. "But with the mitigation efforts, there was less damage because we don't have structures in those flood prone areas like we did in the 70s."

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