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The Storm of the Century's visit to Harford

BY ALLAN VOUGHT, avought@theaegis.com

6:37 PM EDT, June 19, 2012

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Forty years ago this week, on June 20, 1972, a Tuesday, it was starting to rain in Harford County.

The front of a storm that had once been a hurricane in the Caribbean had begun to make its way north along the Atlantic Coast, and many meteorologists suggested it was likely to die out along the way.

Six days later, most people in our county were counting their blessings, and for good reason. Tropical Storm Agnes turned out to be no blown-out remnant of a major storm but was the real deal herself.

Agnes brought down 5 to 7 inches of rain across the county, causing flooding to local rivers and streams the likes of which hadn't been seen before and, in all but a few cases, since. When the Susquehanna River finally crested at Conowingo Dam, water flow was recorded at some 8.5 million gallons a second, and all 53 of the dam's floodgates — a number widely reported at the time – were opened for the only time in its 83-year history. (Since then, one of the flood gates has been replaced with a fish lift.) Behind the dam, the river rose to within two and half feet of the top, some 111.5 feet.

In her wake, Agnes left $5 million to $10 million in property damage in Harford, a wide estimate that is understandable because it would be years before the county got through spending more than that to replace dozens of bridges that were permanently weakened by Agnes, not to mention the handful washed out completely. Over the region, it was estimated Agnes caused $3.2 billion in property damage, at the time making it the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history, a mark that stood for another 20 years.

Harford County was relatively lucky in the sense that no deaths locally were attributed to Agnes, although 122 people were killed and more than 210,000 were left homeless along the storm's path from Florida to upstate New York. Environmental damage caused by the storm remains four decades later, however.

For weeks afterward, rescue and evacuation efforts were lauded from municipal, to local to state officials, who praised police, firemen, EMS personnel and the Red Cross, among others who were instrumental in keeping everyone safe.

Some of the biggest stories about Agnes in Harford County have always tended to be what might have been, as in what if Conowingo Dam hadn't been able to hold back the Susquehanna as it roared down from Pennsylvania carrying more water on a single day, June 24, 1972, than it has on any other day in recorded history? Or, what if the owner of the dam decided to blow out a portion, a story that has taken on a life of its own, leaving Havre de Grace and the towns on the Cecil County side of the river to fend for themselves? Or, what if the storm hadn't centered over north and north central Pennsylvania, as it did, and instead had veered west over the Mason-Dixon Line? Would the result have been more or less destruction?

Conjecture aside, Agnes remains one of the top stories of last 112 years in Harford County, unquestionably earning it's moniker, "Storm of the Century." In Friday's print edition of The Aegis and online at http://www.exploreharford.com, we will take a little closer look at Agnes and talk with some of the people who lived through it and haven't forgotten those six days in June 1972.

Story updated to reflect change in an incorrect date.