BY BRYNA ZUMER AND MARISSA GALLO AND KAYLA BAWROSKI, The Aegis
9:00 PM EDT, September 8, 2011
A state of emergency was declared Thursday afternoon in Harford County, mandatory evacuations were ordered and schools were closed as communities along the churning Susquehanna River braced for historic flooding in the wake of Tropical Storm Lee.
The week's torrential downpours already have waters rising at a rapid rate and weather reports for Saturday promise even more flooding.
Port Deposit on the Cecil County shore of the river was placed under a mandatory evacuation Thursday, while on the Harford shore, some 1,500 Havre de Grace residents closest to the water were likewise advised to leave their homes and find higher ground.
Havre de Grace residents living closest to the river began receiving telephone messages through Harford's Connect Cty system Thursday evening asking them to evacuate.
County Emergency Operations Manager Rick Ayers said Thursday evening the county was being told the worst of the Susquehanna flooding might come sooner than expected.
He also said that all 50 crest gates at Conowingo Dam could open as soon as Friday morning.
"The time they're telling us 'now' is 11 a.m. tomorrow [Friday] morning," he said.
The peak of flooding is expected to be Saturday morning, Ayers said.
"We're also concerned about high tides in Havre de Grace because that will mean even more flooding," he said. Tidal flow into the lower Susquehanna from the Chesapeake Bay reaches several miles above Havre de Grace.
Ayers said several homes by the river along Lapidum Road north of Havre de Grace were also being evacuated.
A public shelter has been designated at Aberdeen High School, he said.
Ayers said he expects a maximum of about 200 people to actually go to the high school.
"We think the majority of those people would probably go somewhere else," he said of the evacuees.
Some stay behind
In Port Deposit, the water was quickly rising on Main Street late Thursday afternoon, but some residents were prepared to stand their ground, government orders to contrary.
Gayle Wysock, owner of CM Tugs on Main Street, said Thursday she planned to stay, despite the mandatory evacuation. Wysock has owned CM Tugs since 2003, she said, but has lived on Main Street for the past year.
The water has never reached the restaurant, she added.
"The evacuations have happened a couple of times, but it's never gotten to the restaurant," she said, "even with Agnes," the 1972 storm that caused the worst flooding in history along the lower Susquehanna.
For Rodney Reamer, who lives in Tome's Landing, the water has already reached chest level in his garage, but he, too, is staying. Wednesday night, he said, several of the garages in Tome's Landing were broken in to, so he is staying behind.
"I'm not going anywhere," Reamer said, adding he would probably hang out at CM Tugs.
Earlier Thursday afternoon, the water hadn't quite reached the street in front of Shannon Salyer's house, but within an hour, it quickly rose.
Salyer, a Port Deposit resident for the past four years, hadn't originally planned to evacuate, but changed her mind when the expected flooding increased.
"I have to [evacuate]," she said. "I have four kids. We can't stay."
She and her husband plan to stay in a hotel, she added, and have the children spend the night with relatives and friends close by.
Russell Valek, who has been a resident for nine years, and his brother, Rob Slover, were all packed up and ready to leave Thursday morning. Their home, Valek said, was already starting to flood. With a poncho draped over his backpack to protect it from rain, the two were ready to head to a friend who lives on the hill.
Record flow at dam possible
Exelon had announced at 2 p.m. Thursday that it expected to open all 50 available floodgates at Conowingo Dam by Saturday.
"Last time we opened all the gates was during Hurricane Agnes [in 1972]," Exelon spokesman Bob Judge said Thursday afternoon.
Agnes caused the largest volume of water flow through the dam in its 83-year history, and the river reached its highest level since records had been kept in the late 1700s.
The dam had 34 gates opened by Thursday afternoon, which is generally enough to cause flooding in Port Deposit.
Water rises in Havre de Grace
Havre de Grace city spokesman John Van Gilder said at about 2:30 p.m. that residents closer to the river were already being encouraged to leave.
"We are encouraging anyone who lives in a flood-prone area, we are kind of recommending that they self-evacuate," he said, emphasizing that the evacuation is still voluntary.
Officials are making the recommendation "knowing that the [water] levels are going to be of a historic proportion," Van Gilder said.
In declaring a state of emergency in the county, Harford County Executive David Craig, a Havre de Grace resident, said the county was requesting that city residents living within a few blocks of the river evacuate.
"There is a need to take steps to prepare for potential destruction and the possibility of evacuation due to flooding and to minimize the threat to public safety and the lives of Harford County citizens and for the facilitation of the deployment of requisite resources," Craig said in an announcement posted on the county's website.
Harford was placed under a state of emergency on Aug. 26 prior to Hurricane Irene, and that declaration was extended by the county council earlier this week, at Craig's request, because of lingering effects from the earlier storm.
Nursing home evacuated
About 165 patients at the Citizens Care and Rehabilitation Center on the Havre de Grace waterfront were evacuated Thursday afternoon out of concern about the rising Susquehanna River.
According to Citizens Care Administrator Peter Panos, Harford County Emergency Operations Center is handling the transfer of patients to other nearby nursing homes with available beds. Some people could be temporarily moved to a home outside of Harford County.
Panos said patients will be transferred back when the river's waters go down to a safe level,
"Getting the patients into a safe environment" has been the center's top priority, Panos said. Once that is done, staff members will focus on securing the building.
Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Association Public Information Office David Williams likewise said the process was running smoothly and many patients had already been picked up by family members. For those who were being relocated, Williams said they were working with local nursing homes to secure beds.
"Dependent on the worst case scenario, this could be a long term relocation," he said. "This could be a week or longer."
Citizens Care was the first priority, Williams added, and the Emergency Operations Center plans to focus on the Graw, a high rise senior citizen apartment building that is across Revolution Street from Citizens Care Center and less than a block from the Susquehanna River.
A staging area had been set up around the corner from the nursing home with emergency apparatus to be used if necessary.
The Havre de Grace Activity Center, on Lewis Lane, was also closed. All senior, Boys and Girls Club and Havre de Grace Recreation Committee programs scheduled for Friday were canceled.
Some schools closed Friday
Aberdeen City Manager Doug Miller said Aberdeen High School was designated Thursday afternoon as a shelter for anyone who needs it.
Harford County Public Schools announced earlier in the day it had canceled all Friday classes at Aberdeen High and at the four schools in Havre de Grace - Havre de Grace High, Middle and Elementary and Meadowvale Elementary.
School system spokeswoman Teri Kranefeld said Aberdeen High School was chosen to be a shelter because of its close proximity to the flood-affected areas.
While his city seems to be in good shape, Aberdeen's Miller said, "we are concerned on a regional basis, in that this issue with the Susquehanna and all the flood gates opening up, regionally, that's going to affect all of us, and we will stand by to assist Havre de Grace and Harford County as we can."
"We have been told that the high school will be used as a shelter and we will have Aberdeen Police Department available as security for that," he said.
At about 4 p.m. Thursday, Harford County had 13 sections of road closed, including parts of Walters Mill Road, Stafford Road, Sandy Hook Road, Nobles Mill Road, Madonna Road, Love Road, Kerr Road, Green Road, Grafton Shop Road, Craigs Corner Road and Beatty Road.
A handful of state roads in the area were also reported closed for high water as of about 4:45 p.m.
They included Route 1 at Route 222 on the east side of Conowingo Dam; Route 165 at Route 24 in Pylesville; Route 1 at Priestford Road in Darlington; Route 543 between Route 1 and Route 440 in Street; Route 136 at East Medical Hall Road; and Route 7 between Calvary Road and Route 543 in Creswell.