As the water rose up Main Street in historic Ellicott City that wet morning in June 1972, creeping ever higher, Roland Bounds took out a piece of chalk and marked a line on the sidewalk, just downhill from his wife's Ellicott's Country Store.
If the water reached that mark, he told his teenage son, Steve, they would have to start moving furniture from the first floor to the second floor of the store, which is about halfway up the street from the Patapsco River.
"I remember it vividly," said Steve Bounds, now 56. "When you're 16 years old, you're just in awe of the magnitude of it all. It was an amount of water that was hard to even fathom."
Such was the immediate presence in the old mill town of Tropical Storm Agnes, a storm 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 farther south, submerged the lower end of historic Ellicott City and wreaked havoc in Elkridge and other low-lying areas, destroying homes and businesses and washing out bridges and roads.
The water never reached Ellicott's Country Store, which will mark its 50th anniversary this October. But when the water finally receded, owner Enalee Bounds — who was in the middle of preparations for the 200th anniversary of the town's 1772 founding — gave her son a shovel and sent him down the hill to help others who were hit hard.
"I felt really, really bad for them, really awful," she said of her fellow business owners, whose shops had been completely destroyed.
"There was just massive amounts of mud and all sorts of junk," Steve Bounds said of the scene he found. "There was a tremendous amount of trees and wires and all kinds of telephone poles and all sorts of things that had been dislodged upstream."
What he and many others didn't realize at the time, he said, was that mixed into the sludge were also dead bodies, raw sewage, gasoline and toxins.
"It never crossed my mind that I was in boots and probably shorts and a T-shirt with a shovel and buckets cleaning stuff out that had all kinds of toxic stuff in it," he said. "It just never occurred to me until a couple of days later, when I got sick as a dog."
The storm dropped an estimated 10 to 14 inches of rain on already saturated areas of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania and caused massive flooding from North Carolina to New York. It also killed seven people along the Patapsco River, one in Columbia, a total of 19 in Maryland and 122 along the East Coast, according to reports from local newspapers and the National Weather Service.
Howard County was turned into a "veritable island" of devastation because so many bridges were knocked out, according to a popular retrospective account of the storm published in 1972 by The Times Newspapers. Agnes forced some 900 residents to evacuate their homes, left more than 700 residents homeless for a period of time, and damaged more than 175 homes and dozens of businesses, some of which were completely washed away.
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.
Officers with the Howard County Police Department logged 4,467 hours during the week of the storm, according to the Times Newspapers account and other reports.
Today, 40 years later, Agnes 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, including those in 1868, 1923 and 1952, have largely faded, many people who lived through Agnes are still around and remember its wrath.
Last year, when Tropical Storm Lee drenched the area with an estimated 10 inches of rain and caused flooding once more in historic Ellicott City, it was Agnes people spoke of.
People on lower Main Street, whose basements Lee filled with multiple feet of water, said they were thankful the storm wasn't as bad as Agnes. People up the hill from Main Street in the west end of the historic town, which was hit hard by Lee when the Tiber tributary backed up, quantified the breadth of damage to their homes with the simple declaration that it was worse than during Agnes.
'A very devastating night'
Agnes was a brute, a "once-in-a-lifetime" storm, said David Hoff, who was a sergeant in the county fire department at the time and one of the men on call the night of June 21 and the early morning of June 22, 1972, when the state started experiencing record-breaking river crests and the flooding began.