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Susquehanna crest Saturday may not be as bad as feared, Harford officials say

County remains on guard for more Havre de Grace flooding

BY KAYLA BAWROSKI AND ALLAN VOUGHT, The Aegis

3:27 PM EDT, September 9, 2011

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Harford and Cecil counties are still preparing for what officials say could be more severe flooding from the Susquehanna River below Conowingo Dam.

But, Harford offiicials also got some good news late Friday morning that the worst flooding expected to occur Saturday morning may not be as bad as was originally feared.

Rain continued to pelt the region Friday, as remnants of Tropical Storm Lee remained stalled over the Susquehanna drainage area. Flash flood warnings were still in effect in areas of eastern Pennsylvania and lower upstate New York which are drained by the river, according to the National Weather Service.

Following an 11 a.m. Friday briefing at the county's Emergency Operations Center north of Bel Air, Harford County government spokesman Bob Thomas said officials from the Conowingo Dam said they expect to have 44 floodgates open when the Susquehanna River is expected to crest at the dam around 8 a.m. Saturday. The dam is owned and operated by Exelon Power.

"From that point they [Exelon] expect the water to begin to recede up through 6 p.m.," Thomas added.

Though the county remains under a state of emergency declared Thursday afternoon by County Executive David Craig, Thomas said information obtained from the National Weather Service leads Harford emergency officials to believe "the situation will be progressively improving."

Thomas also said staffing at the EOC would be scaled back starting Friday afternoon, with fewer county people on duty. They will continue to be joined by staff from the Maryland Emergency Operations Agency and the City of Havre de Grace.

Thomas said he did not know when evacuations ordered Thursday will be canceled so residents of Havre de Grace can return.

Conowingo Dam is located about seven miles upriver from Havre de Grace, and Saturday's expected flood crest at the dam will be an hour or so before high tide from the Chesapeake Bay entering the lower river reaches Havre de Grace at 9:19 a.m. Saturday, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The relationship of the high tide to the amount of water moving down the river is a factor in what may or may not happen in the city Saturday morning.

Thursday, Harford officials were told by Exelon Power that it was possible all of the dam's 50 available floodgates would be open by 11 a.m. Friday.

That didn't happen, however, nor does it appear, based on the Friday briefing, that the maximum number of gates will be open Saturday morning, as had also been predicted.

There were 43 gates open as of early Friday morning; however, further updates were not available at 11 a.m. The Conowingo spill phone hotline kept throwing back busy signals, and Exelon's Conowingo spokesman could not be contacted. The spill hotline update at 7:45 a.m. did say it was anticipated 42 gates would be open in the next two hours.

"Right now we're kind of business as usual, we're just watching the flooding closely and trying to react," Harford Emergency Operations Manager Rick Ayers said shortly after 9:30 a.m. Friday.

Across the river, residents of Port Deposit on the Cecil County shore were told to leave the town Thursday and many of the 700 who live in the town did. Some residents, however, refused to evacuate and said they were staying behind.

Most low lying areas right along the river were flooded in Havre de Grace Friday morning, shortly after high tide at 8:35 a.m. All the city's parks were ordered closed Thursday in anticipation of flooding.

What the county had said were "mandatory" evacuations from low lying areas Havre de Grace on the Harford County shore of the river were completed early Friday morning, emergency officials said.

"We completed all of our mandatory evacuations in Havre de Grace about 1:30 this [Friday] morning," Ayers said. Most people who left went to homes of relatives or friends.

A few did use a shelter the county set up earlier in the day Thursday at Aberdeen High School. Ayers said 10 people stayed at the high school Thursday night.

Utility service cut off

Baltimore Gas & Electric, which had set up a command center in the city and had several crews standing by Friday morning, began turning off gas and electric service to customers in the affected part of the city for safety reasons, the company said.

As of Friday morning, BGE said in a news release, natural gas service had been suspended to approximately 200 customers and electric service had been suspended to nearly 90 customers.

The company warned, however, that "the number of customers affected is expected to increase with the opening of additional floodgates at the Conowingo Dam this [Friday] morning and the forecasted cresting of the Susquehanna River tomorrow [Saturday] morning. Service will be restored to the affected customers after the water recedes and BGE has completed a thorough inspection of its equipment, made any necessary repairs and determines it is safe to restore service."

"BGE has been working very closely with the City of Havre de Grace and Harford County emergency management officials to ensure the safety of residents affected by the historic rainfall and subsequent flooding that have triggered mandatory evacuations in some areas," A. Christopher Burton, senior vice president of gas and electric operations for BGE, said in the news release. "This continues to be a very fluid situation and we continue to monitor the rising flood waters and expect additional customers will be taken out of service to help ensure their safety and to minimize damage to our gas and electric infrastructure."

Weekend school events canceled

Aberdeen High was closed to students Friday so the building could be used for the shelter.

Classes were also canceled Friday at Havre de Grace's four schools, Havre de Grace High, Havre de Grace Middle, Havre de Grace Elementary and Meadowvale Elementary because of the evacuations in the city and concerns about flooding.

No other schools in Harford County were closed Friday; however, Harford County Public Schools announced the cancellation of all after school activities Friday and all activities planned for Saturday and Sunday.

Craig visited affected areas of Havre de Grace around 8 a.m. Friday, checking the status of the flooding and talking to both emergency responders and some residents still in the area, county government spokesman Thomas said.

Craig, who lives on the edge of the area in the city that was evacuated, next went to the Harford County Emergency Operations Center north of Bel Air for a briefing around 9 a.m., Thomas said.

Thomas also confirmed that Friday's evacuation of the city wasn't exactly mandatory.

"Yes and no," he said in response to a reporter's question about it. "We did go door-to-door on the streets that the county executive earlier announced were threatened, and we asked people to leave, but nobody was forced to leave if they didn't want to."

Thomas said both Havre de Grace city police and sheriff's deputies did the door-to-door notifications.

Seniors, nursing home patients leave

Thursday's evacuations included the Citizens Care Center and a senior citizen high rise apartment building called The Graw.

Residents of citizens' continuing care (nursing home) units were moved to other area nursing home facilities in the area.

Dave Williams, a spokesman for the Harford County Fire and Ambulance Association, said some of the affected nursing home patients in Havre de Grace are being moved outside Harford and surrounding counties to facilities elsewhere in the state where space is available.

One facility outside the area he mentioned is Chester River Nursing Center in Chestertown.

"They were starting to move residents a little farther away than just Baltimore County and Harford County," Williams said.

Williams said a hotline has been set up for friends/family of nursing home residents to provide information where patients have been relocated: 1-888-756-7836.

Elsewhere in Harford County, 13 county roads remained closed because of high water Friday morning, according to Thomas.

The State Highway Administration's Maryland 511 website was reporting some state roads in Harford County still had partial lane closures Friday morning because of high water. No state roads in the county were closed completely, according to the website.