Laurel flood 1972

Southbound Route 1 was divided by flood water in this 1972 photo that shows the former Howard Johnson Motor Lodge and the AAMCO building on the left. (Photo courtesy Laurel Historical Society Collection / June 20, 2012)

Every once in a while, Richard Kluckhuhn, president of Laurel Fuel Oil and Heating Co., will open an old shelved box to find a specific copper fitting for a plumbing job. Instead, he will find dried mud and silt from 1972 — when Tropical Storm Agnes flooded the company at 101 Main St.

"It still plagues us," Kluckhuhn said of the historic storm, which caused an estimated $100,000 in damages to the company and millions of dollars in damages throughout Laurel when the Patuxent River overflowed its banks and washed over Route 1, onto Main Street and through low-lying areas of South Laurel.

Tropical Storm Agnes would become one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit Maryland and one of the costliest storms in the nation's history, with an estimated billions of dollars in damages.

Locally, the storm, which had been a hurricane in the south, caused an estimated 1,000 Laurel residents to be evacuated from their homes; and wreaked havoc in other low-lying areas of the county and region, destroying homes and businesses, and washing out bridges and roadways.

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Laurel's historic Ninth Street and Race Course bridges were washed out completely, never to be replaced.

The storm—which dropped an estimated 10 to 14 inches of rain on Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania and caused massive flooding from North Carolina to New York—killed seven people along the Patapsco River, a total of 19 in Maryland and 122 along the East Coast, though none in Laurel, according to reports from local newspapers and the National Weather Service.

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, according to local reports.

Laurel Fuel had 12 vehicles submerged, trucks standing in 5 feet of water, flooded offices and a submerged basement and two large oil tanks floating, Kluckhuhn said.

Heavy damages were also reported at Fred Frederick's Chrysler-Plymouth dealership and Mistletoe Garden Apartments, among other businesses and apartment complexes.

Damage from more than nature

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 state—like those in 1868, 1923 and 1952—have largely faded, many people who lived through Agnes are still around and remember its wrath.

And in Laurel, many point to human causes for the flooding as much as to Mother Nature.

Kluckhuhn remembers the storm with frustration, specifically because of his belief that it was decisions made by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, and operators of the Brighton and Rocky Gorge dams upstream from Laurel that caused the flooding.

"This was a man-made flood: It wasn't a natural flood," he said in a recent interview.

"That was one of my big moments in Laurel when I was really disgusted," he said.

As the rain poured down on the night of June 21, 1972, operators at the dam faced the decision of how many gates to open and when to open them.

Then-Laurel Fire Chief Joseph Robison remembers getting a late-night phone call from Laurel Police telling him there was fear the dams would break and asking if they could use the fire hall as a staging area for emergency responders.

Robison said he immediately agreed, then got out of bed and headed into the storm to assess the situation.

When he realized the city's emergency siren wasn't yet wailing, he ordered that it start sounding immediately.

According to contemporary reports, some gates were opened at the dams at about 10:40 p.m. All had been opened by shortly after midnight.