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40 years later, Agnes remains benchmark for county disasters

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."

Flooding, deaths

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.

"It was a very devastating night, let me tell you," said Hoff, now 70, in a recent interview.

The world that Agnes rushed through was a different one from today, many people interviewed noted.

The local highway system was much less developed, the science behind the identification of historical flood plains wasn't as accurate, and channels of communication — early-warning systems, cell phones, social media — were woefully inadequate or nonexistent.

Local emergency responders also had far less equipment.

As the waters rose, Hoff said he and another firefighter, Charlie Mellin, were dispatched to a home a couple of hundred yards from the Patapsco River on Marriottsville Road, across from the Carroll County line, where water from the river and a nearby creek had created a rapid torrent that was lapping against the home's second-story windows.

There were 14 people trapped inside, including two mentally handicapped children, Hoff said.

All Hoff and Mellin had were a 14-foot flat boat, rope, radios and hand-held lights, Hoff recalled.

"It was pitch dark," he said.

The pair assessed the situation and determined Hoff would join a National Guardsman on the boat while Mellin would post up on dry land, at the other end of a rope attached to the boat.

Hoff wondered if he'd be alive the next day.

"I kind of prayed a little bit," he said. "I said, 'Lord, you get me out of this, we got it made.'"

He then handed Mellin one of the radios, and looked his partner in the eyes.

"I said, 'I'll tell you one damn thing. The only thing, Charlie, I want you to do, is keep talking to me. That's what the radio is for. I don't care what you talk about, I just want to hear a voice coming from you,'" Hoff recalled.

Then he headed out into the swift water, into the dark and the rain and the wind. He and the guardsman didn't know what was under them. At one point, a large propane tank popped out of the water right next to the boat, almost tipping it.

When they reached the house and realized how many people were there, they immediately decided there would have to be multiple trips made and started giving instructions to the first group.

"You had to explain to them," Hoff said. "You had to take them one-on-one and explain to them exactly what was going to happen, what to expect. And I plainly came out and told them, 'There's no guarantee with this swift water. There's no guarantee.'"

Hoff said he and Mellin and the National Guardsman worked most of the night, making four trips to the house and back.

Everyone was saved.

"It's been a long time," Hoff said, "but I can remember it like it was yesterday."

"Why those guys didn't get killed, I'll never know," said Richard Freas, another firefighter who responded the next morning to find Hoff and Mellin just ending their shift.

"They did some amazing work in the dark."

Helicopter rescues

Similar stories played out across the county and the region, and provide compelling reads in newspaper clippings about the storm.

A woman in Columbia was washed away to her death, her date barely surviving. A family of six in Elkridge clung to an overturned boat for hours in the dark until they reached more shallow water. Responders in helicopters rescued two plant workers from a roof in Daniels — a town that was essentially wiped off the map — as well as two railroad engineers near Marriottsville. Bodies were pulled from the mud along the Patapsco.

Newspaper clippings aside, there are also those who can still share firsthand accounts of the storm.

Velva Howard, 85, who lived up the hill from historic Ellicott City off Frederick Road, remembers leaving her father at her family's home and going with her mother — who'd been washed down the street during a previous flood and was terrified of the water — to higher ground.

Each of the next few days, her children went down the hill to help with the cleanup, she said, and when they came back, she would hose them down before they came in the house because they were covered in so much mud.

Will Sorg, 85, a Korean War veteran who lived in Valley Meade at the time, remembers taking the water pumps from St. Johns Lane Swim Club, where he was on the board, and going up and down Frederick Road looking for homes that needed water pumped out of their basements.

"People's basements had four or five feet of water. I'm not talking about inches," he said. "I would knock on their doors and say, 'You need some help?'"

Dorothy Biller, 78, said her family — including her sister and brother-in-law, who'd fled their home near the river on Levering Avenue in Elkridge — spent the entire night trying to save items in the basement of their home on Gorman Road, off Bethany Lane.

"We had to work all night to keep the water out," she said, noting they'd used snow shovels to scoop water into a galvanized bathtub.

"It's a wonder there's anything left in Ellicott City," Howard said.

Life goes on

According to Enalee Bounds, who redoubled her efforts and successfully threw a bicentennial celebration in the town just months after the storm, the damage caused by Agnes seemed "overwhelming" for a time.

"We were trying to spiff up the town and get everything ready," she said of her work when the storm hit. "All of the things we were preparing for were very difficult to get through, and we didn't know if we could get through it."

But people rallied together, she said, and formed the group Historic Ellicott City Inc., which is still in existence, to lead the recovery charge.

In fact, despite all the destruction, the vibrancy that the historic town enjoys today is in part due to Agnes, Bounds said.

The storm revived people's interest in Ellicott City and its history, she said.

"It probably helped the bicentennial celebration, because people's focus was already on Ellicott City," she said.

In the years since Agnes, the town has changed dramatically, said Ed Williams, who has co-owned Mumbles and Squeaks Toy Shoppe on Main Street since 1991 and who helped install the high-water markers — Agnes comes in at 14 1/2 feet — near the town's B&O Railroad Station Museum.

Williams said people like himself keep moving into the town and opening new shops, despite the stories from the past, the warnings of the power of the river and the threat that a storm like Agnes could come again.

There is a symbiotic relationship between the town and the river that people understand, he said. "The water and the ability for it to move rapidly was the whole reason the town became what it became, because the water could power the mill."

People today take their chances, buy insurance and prepare whenever heavy rains are predicted, Williams said. It's just part of life working in the old town, he said.

Enalee Bounds would agree with that assessment.

"When it rains a lot," she said on a recent sunny afternoon, "we don't sleep very well."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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