Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. $12 for 12 weeks.

Remembering Agnes: 'We really took a hit'

The flooding in Harford and Cecil counties caused by Tropical Storm Agnes 40 years ago this week is considered among the worst of all time in both Harford and Cecil counties.

"That was the worst storm I can ever recall," Wardell Stansbury, a lifelong resident of Havre de Grace and a member of the city council at the time, said. "I think we are better prepared to handle something like that if some kind of catastrophe comes around again."

Donald "Benny" Poist, who was a Port Deposit resident, lived through Agnes. He became the town's mayor in 1981.

Poist recently moved to Perryville with his wife - and to higher ground - following the latest floods from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee last summer and fall.

Poist said he lived on North Main Street at the time of Agnes. His wife had a drapery business that was flooded out, as was their home.

"We really took a hit," he said, adding they had no flood insurance. "We knew the water was coming, but we did not think it would be as bad as it was, and when it [the water] went down, it left a couple feet of mud in the basements."

Poist said they waited until there was about a foot of water in the house, then sent their children to higher ground.

"We kept hoping it would stop at one foot," he said. Instead, they ended up with four feet of water in the house.

Not only did the Susquehanna River rise to a level unprecedented in the 20th century during Agnes, but other area rivers and streams, including Deer Creek, Bynum and Winters Run, Little Gunpowder Falls and Octoraro Creek in Cecil County likewise rose to record levels.

Though Agnes began as a hurricane, by the time she left the Gulf of Mexico and moved north across the Florida panhandle and then along the Atlantic Coast from Georgia, she had already been downgraded to a tropical storm. Even so, her worst destruction was yet to come.

Over a five-day period from June 19 to 24, 1972, Agnes continued moving along the coast, dousing everything in her path with torrents of rain. Though she traveled across the Chesapeake region in a northeasterly direction, she caused most of her damage after passing by our area, when the storm split into two centers over Pennsylvania, one hovering over the northeastern corner of that state and the other over the north central portion.

Where the centers - low pressure areas with tremendous amounts of moisture - stalled corresponded geographically with the two main branches of the Susquehanna which splits north of Harrisburg, Pa., before continuing on across Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York state. As a consequence, the river and its tributaries continued to rise and then all that water headed south to Harrisburg and beyond to Maryland and the Chesapeake. The flooding situation was exacerbated by high levels of groundwater and streams in central Maryland remaining from large amounts of rainfall experienced the previous fall.

Rick Ayers and Linda Ploener, of the Harford County Emergency Operations Center, were not around when Agnes hit, but were able to provide historical data from their resources at the center.

Harford County received 5 to 7 inches of rain during the storm, which Ayers said hit the United States from June 19 to June 24. The worst day for Harford County was the last, when the water was at the highest flow and crest at the Conowingo Dam, he added.

Most of the flooding was from when the storm landed in Pennsylvania and they received 7 to 15 inches of rain, according to Ayers. When the waters came down through to the dam, the highest discharge recorded, they had to have all 53 gates opened.

"We've never had another storm that had every gate at the Conowingo Dam open like Agnes," Ayers said.

The high waters caused flooding in Havre de Grace and the evacuation of Citizens Nursing Home, Ayers said, much like with the storms last fall but worse. Since then, Ploener said they have had storms with more damage countywide comparatively because the flooding Agnes' brought primarily impacted Havre de Grace.

When Harford County is faced with similar storms, Ayers said they base their decisions on what happens at the Conowingo Dam on what happened during Agnes.

Last year, when faced with Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, Ayers said their "worst-case scenario" plans were for Agnes-type events.

"We were lucky we didn't get to that point," he said.

Even so, Ayers said the flooding Harford County experiences during these types of storms does not compare to what Cecil County deals with.

Though the conditions were ripe for a natural disaster of epic proportions and, for the times, the damage largely met such definitions, Agnes also tested the emergency preparedness systems of Harford and Cecil counties and found them for the most equal to the test. For months, even years afterward, people who lived through the storm would marvel how state and local emergency agencies, local volunteer fire and ambulance companies, police departments and private companies and volunteer agencies had been able to come together and work as a unit to prevent even greater calamities.

'Grasping at straws'

"We were supposed to report to city hall, and I remember spending the day and the evening at city hall," Stansbury, the only Havre de Grace city official from that era still living, said,

"We all were kind of grasping for straws to find out what was next," he said. "It was kind of frightening."

Stansbury admitted the storm had city officials like him worried.

"Everyone's trying to play the macho man act, but we were a little nervous," he said. "It was an experience to behold."

Stansbury still remembers the sights and sounds of Agnes.

"The storm was something I never experienced. The rain came down in sheets, just like glass," he said, adding: "If I recall correctly, you could hear the [Conowingo] dam creaking."

Property damage from Agnes in Harford County was estimated at between $5 million and $10 million and at a like amount in Cecil County. In its wake, the storm left total property damage of $3 billion overall, at the time a record for a U.S. natural disaster and one that stood for another 20 years. There were more than 200 deaths attributed to the storm, though none in either Harford or Cecil County.

Locally, it could have been much worse. As Stansbury noted, the water behind Conowingo Dam rose to within two and a half feet of the top of the 114-foot high structure. Had it topped the then 44-year-old structure, there was a widespread belief the dam would have given way, causing unbelievable destruction downriver in Port Deposit, Havre de Grace and Perryville.

Stansbury said he remembers getting calls from Baltimore asking if the dam was going to break, and he jokingly replied: "Let's hope not."

Despite fears the dam might break, the city did make it through.

"We weathered the storm fairly well," Stansbury said.

Most people in low-lying areas left to stay in schools or other higher ground, he said.

"The response of the city was outstanding, great," he continued. "They did a doggone good job."

"That was the worst storm I can ever recall," he added. "I think we are better prepared to handle something like that if some kind of catastrophe comes around again."

Seeking higher ground

Current Susquehanna Hose Company President Charlie Packard was in his mid-20 during Agnes. He was on duty at the fire station when the river and Lilly Run began to rise.

Packard remembers actually moving some fire equipment at the firehouse on Revolution Street out to higher ground, evacuating Citizens Care Center - then called Citizens Nursing Home - and trying to deal with massive amounts of flooding.

Packard said he believes buses came from Aberdeen Proving Ground to move the more ambulatory residents of Citizens Care to Meadowvale Elementary School, where they spent the night. Newspaper photographs from the time support his recollection.

Meanwhile, Packard said, "Harford Memorial [Hospital] moved all their patients from the lower floor up, and anyone who was able to go home, they were dismissed from the hospital."

"Today it would be a completely different scenario, with Canvasback Cove and Seneca Pointe," he said about two developments on the city's waterfront that didn't exist in 1972. "You would have much more evacuation of residents."

Packard remembered it was Friday night [June 23] as Susquehanna Hose began calling in volunteers.

"A lot of the fellows in our area had gone to a ballgame and they came back to start getting prepared," he said. "It was two or three days before everything settled down."

Packard said he has not seen a storm like Agnes since then, in terms of affecting city services, "just from the standpoint of the amount of water that was in town and the way we had the town broken up, because of areas you could get to and couldn't get to."

Even getting ambulances to Harford Memorial was a problem for a while, and in 1972, Harford Memorial was the only hospital in Harford County.

"There was a period of time when you really couldn't get the ambulances into town, and then I think there was a period where we had a route that we were able to get them in," Packard said.

Havre de Grace had never evacuated residents in any significant amounts before then, Packard recalled.

He also thinks the event would be treated a lot differently today.

"I think today would be a lot better able to handle it from the standpoint of communication. We have just got a much better system than we had then, we have more portable radios so you can keep in contact better," he said. "You learn from each operation and hope you don't have to do it again."

"I think it put us in a position where we needed to be able to coordinate things a little better between us, the police and [the Department of Public Works] and to have contingency plans in place. I think the structure is a lot better than it was at the time," Packard said.

Flooded like never before

Harford County Executive David Craig, another lifelong resident of Havre de Grace, was in his early 20s and in his first year of marriage when the storm hit. He was also a sportswriter for The Record at the time.

"There were areas of Havre de Grace I had never seen flooded before," Craig recalled.

He remembers seeing a man riding a bicycle in the street with water covering the wheels and dealing with chest-high water in the basement.

Agnes didn't stop some aspects of life from going forward. Craig remembers his sister getting married during the storm and having to spend the honeymoon at her parents' house.

Communications, information and emergency services were also not what they are now, said Craig, who would go on to serve six years on the city council and two stints as Havre de Grace's mayor.

"Back then, it was all volunteer stuff," Craig said. "It was probably one of the things that pushed government to say, we need to be prepared for stuff like this."

There were no 911 calls to make, and weather reports were "iffy," he said.

"There was very little information about [the storm] for anybody in the city," Craig said of Havre de Grace.

The police and fire companies were very small, there was no EMS and very little involvement with emergency services - "you were on your own," he said.

More importantly, residents did not necessarily expect much more than potentially someone from Susquehanna Hose Company helping them pump out their basements.

"That attitude and that expectation for the citizens has changed immensely," he said.

Agnes also unleashed unprecedented environmental damage throughout the Susquehanna River Basin and the Chesapeake Bay that has continued to be felt decades afterward. She truly fit the meteorological categorization of a 100-year storm.

The storm brought in a lot of polluted sediment down the Susquehanna and left a legacy of environmental problems for the bay, Craig said.

"It did tremendous damage to the northern part of the Chesapeake Bay, there's no doubt about that," he said. "I would still say the Upper Chesapeake Bay hasn't recovered from that storm and how bad it was."

Craig said the most recent storm to cause a significant rise in Susquehanna River levels, Tropical Storm Lee last September, probably left about 40 percent the amount of sediment that Agnes did.

Test for the future

Communications have definitely improved since 1972, current Havre de Grace Mayor Wayne Dougherty said.

"I don't think the emergency action plans were as specific as they are today," said Dougherty, who was in his early 20s and a member of Susquehanna Hose Company and working at the old Citizens Bank during Agnes.

"It was just tracking the storm all night and waiting to see what was going on with the damage and stuff," he remembers. "It was a long night in Havre de Grace, but I think things worked out well."

Dougherty explained shelters and evacuation plans were less established.

"Evacuation of the nursing home is a prime example. There wasn't really an evacuation plan back then," he said. "Back in '72, there was more frustration."

City, county, state and other emergency organizations, he said, "work so close together now."

Dougherty, and others, said Havre de Grace nevertheless responded well and did the best it could under the circumstances.

"The city was poised to do whatever they could at the time," he said. "The emergency plan today is 100 percent better."

He also doesn't think the storm affected the city too much in the long run.

"Havre de Grace has always had the ability to bounce right back," Dougherty said.

"My philosophy is, communication to the public is the most important thing," he added. "Regardless of how much communication there is, people always expect more."

Former Aegis reporter Jack McLaughlin had only being working for the newspaper for about six months before Agnes hit.

Born and raised in Havre de Grace, McLaughlin was still living with his parents and by that Thursday evening [June 22] "couldn't get out of town," McLaughlin remembers.

The next day, the reporter was back at work and went to Aldino Airpark (now Harford County Airport) to take a "quick hop" in one of the planes and photograph the damage from up above.

"We flew over the Conowingo Dam and it looked to me like it was full to the top," McLaughlin said. "It looked like a boiling caldron of coffee with trees and boats and every other kind of debris in it."

His aerial photograph of the dam was run across the top of the front page of the June 29, 1972 edition of The Aegis.

He also took pictures of Havre de Grace, Aberdeen and Gunpowder Falls State Park on the Harford and Baltimore County border.

Looking at Route 1 from an aerial view, McLaughlin said he saw a bridge and a good portion of it was gone.

"It looked like a giant bite had been taken out of it," he said of another photograph that was prominently feature in the next edition of The Aegis. "The creeks and streams were very high.

"The biggest problems didn't occur until Saturday [June 24], when the water began to crest at the dam and the storm moved north toward Pennsylvania and New York."

McLaughlin decided to stay in Havre de Grace along with a friend, future Harford County Circuit Judge William O. Carr, while his parents stayed at a hotel in Aberdeen overnight with his grandmother.

"I was left to my own fate," he recalls. He and Carr listened to a police monitor all night, "not knowing if we'd have to run and jump in the car and head for the hills."

Then there was the fear of possible looters, people thinking that most of the city had gone and taking advantage of what was left behind.

McLaughlin said he had a goose-hunting gun by his side just in case, but fortunately never had to use it - or leave the house.

One thing he heard about that fateful week was that dynamite charges were placed on the dam in case they had to prevent the entire thing from being destroyed.

"I never heard one way or the other if that was true or not," he commented.

To his recollection, McLaughlin believes Agnes was the biggest storm and most devastating for Harford as a whole, at least in his memory.

In 1975, however, he remembers there was a heavy thunderstorm that had Havre de Grace underwater yet again.

McLaughlin said he took a photo of a truck at Juniata Street and Route 155 during that storm (which became known as the Juniata flood), and the water was up to the headlights.

He also remembers a big storm that "caused a great deal of flooding" in the 80s, though, he noted, those storms weren't as widespread as Agnes.

Flooded with water, calls

As a captain with the Maryland State Police, Ted Moyer was stationed in Harford County when Agnes came through. He said he remembered high winds and water flooding from Bush River, which caused many people to lose their basements.

There were many trees down as well, Moyer, who would later serve as Harford's sheriff in the early 1980s, said, adding that they needed State Highway Administration, the county and local fire departments to assist in cleanup.

"We had so many calls that we had them waiting in line at state police," he said.

The local power company gave out dry ice to residents for their refrigerators and there were problems pumping gas at local stations. In some cases, Moyer said they had to use a lawn mower motor to get the gas out of the tanks.

He also praised Harford County for its response to the storm, adding that they used everything they had and it still wasn't enough.

Although there have been big storms in Harford County since then, Moyer said none has reached quite the same magnitude.

"Agnes came through here like a tornado," he said.

River is rising

William and Elaine Derickson and their three children watched the Susquehanna rise from their home of Stafford Road, which is surrounded by Susquehanna State Park.

The park, between Conowingo Dam and Havre de Grace, was considered a remote area then and remains largely so 40 years later.

"I remember it," Elaine Derickson said. "It was pretty wild. We left for a few days, and people tried to steal from us."

Their home, she said, is right next to the river, separated only by the old canal and towpath which was later used as the roadbed for the railroad built between Havre de Grace and Conowingo when the dam was under construction. The railroad was still used occasionally into the early 1970s, but Agnes put it out of commission permanently.

Derickson said the family left for a couple of days at the height of the storm, then returned briefly to check on the damage and decided to spend a week with friends in Ocean City, where there had been negligible impact from Agnes.

"We came back and found people in the driveway and someone had taken one of our bikes," she said.

Their was not damage or flooding, but Derickson remembers there was water everywhere, one of the reasons why they decided go away for another week, "so we wouldn't have to keep driving through all that water."

The doomsday vortex

Todd Holden was also working for The Aegis during Agnes as a photographer and reporter. Holden managed to get a perspective from Conowingo Dam that few did.

"While the storm was raging," Holden said," it was a fearful time."

He remembered how people were scared of the storm itself and the damage it was causing, plus the possibility of the north end of the dam being blown up in an effort to stave off a complete collapse of the massive structure, which some officials felt would cause more damage downriver.

Several roads were closed during the storm and Deer Creek "flooded in several places," Holden said.

Holden was assigned to go to Conowingo and went to take photos. Early in the morning of Saturday, June 24, he caught a glimpse of then Gov. Marvin Mandel, who had flown in by helicopter, talking with emergency officials and representatives of Philadelphia Electric, the dam's owner.

"I got past security and walked out on the dam itself and the concrete I was walking on was trembling," Holden remembered. "It was trembling because of the logs, pieces of house [and] pieces of cars going through every gate."

His iconic photograph of the governor standing with Bel Air Mayor James O'Neill and Conowingo Dam's administrator Paul English also appeared on the front page of the June 29, 1972 edition of The Aegis.

Of course, every one of the dam's floodgates was open for the first and only time in its history, but objects would still bang up against the dam as they tried to pass through.

Holden described the experience of walking out on the dam as being "on a vibrating treadmill."

Feeling the power and sound of the passing water is when the severity of the situation really hit him.

"It was like Niagara Falls right there on the Susquehanna," Holden said.

The next morning, he was back up on the dam, but under very different circumstances - the rain had stopped and the sun was out.

"It wasn't raining it was like, 'We're going to be OK. They don't have to blow the dam up," Holden recalled. He said the feeling was that of a "collective sigh."

Although he doesn't know it for a fact, Holden was under the impression during those several days that if the water continued to rise, then the governor was poised to give orders to blow up a portion of the dam, and this belief added to extra tension during the storm.

One of the biggest things to happen as the storm raged happened in Holden's living room, however.

Two friends of his, a writer and photographer with The Washington Post, were staying at his house to cover Agnes as it sounded like it could destroy the Conowingo Dam.

The journalists would call in their stories every night, Holden said, and spoke with reporters who were about to break the biggest story at the time - Watergate.

Holden remembers one reporter telling him at the time, "This could be a big thing."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
Comments
Loading