Parts of Laurel, which was already saturated and where storm-drain systems were already overwhelmed, were soon underwater.
Martin Flemion, the current director of Laurel's Emergency Operations Center, was a volunteer with the Maryland City Fire Department and responded to Laurel during Agnes. He remembers helping to rescue a stranded motorist on the Route 198 bridge over the Patuxent, which at the time was below the 100-year floodplain, he said.
"We had water coming in the doors of the fire engine. It was that deep," he said.
At another point, Flemion remembers two firefighters being pinned against a metal storm grate they were trying to clear on Harrison Drive by an extremely swift current along the Bear branch, which runs underneath the street.
"It was kind of a harrowing experience getting them out of the water, because the suction was pinning them against the grate," he said.
"That was an interesting experience for us," he added. "We learned a lot at that location about the power of moving water."
Improvements and preparations
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 floodplains 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.
In the weeks following, local residents and business owners began a campaign to force WSSC to create a better system for gauging and controlling water levels at the dams ahead of storms, and criticized Rocky Gorge's duel role as a flood control structure and a water supply reservoir.
According to Lyn Riggins, a WSSC spokeswoman, the commission's main responsibility is supplying 1.8 million residents in Prince George's and Montgomery counties with drinking water, and the dams were "not built for flood protection."
Protecting the water supply remains the WSSC's main priority, including during major storms, because we "all need potable water just to survive," Riggins said.
Still, after Agnes the commission entered into an agreement with the city of Laurel andPrince George's Countyto reduce water levels in the reservoirs on the Patuxent by 3 feet — a decrease of a billion gallons of drinking water stored, Riggins said.
Recently, the WSSC has been doing "a great job" preventing more flooding in Laurel in recent years, according to Flemion.
"WSSC has a plan in place right now where we have had more rain dumped on us in a tighter time confine than what Agnes did, and we have had no adverse impacts downstream whatsoever," Flemion said.
Technology has vastly improved for gauging water levels and how to deal with waterways when those levels begin to rise, Flemion said, and WSSC has installed many more gauges than were in place during Agnes.
"They have a series of gauges all over the watershed, and they can generally tell us within inches what the water level is going to be at any given spot," Flemion said.
When water levels are high and there is more rain expected in the forecast, WSSC will "dewater" the reservoirs, or release strategic amounts ahead of new rainfall, to avoid exposing Laurel and other downstream areas to walls of water that would come if all the gates opened at maximum capacity, Flemion said.
Riggins said the gauges now send stream information back to the WSSC control center every two minutes.
"So not only is the information more accurate and more timely, which benefits everyone including area residents, it also benefits our staff because this is safer than having people out gathering the information in a storm," Riggins said.
WSSC also gets better information from the National Weather Service than it got before Agnes, she said.
'Valuable learning experience'
Laurel is now part of the WSSC Emergency Action Plan that conducts exercises relating to storms once a year, and there is a "fairly extensive emergency notification system now for issues relating to the dam," Flemion said.
Laurel itself is also better prepared for dealing with flooding and storm conditions should something like Agnes happen again, Flemion said.
The city is now home to one ofPrince George's County's swift-water rescue teams; has mutual aid agreements with surrounding jurisdictions; has plans in place to maintain services and keep a completely isolated city viable for at least five days in the event of a regional disaster; and has plans and communication networks in place with many property owners in town who were hit hard during Agnes, Flemion said.
"Agnes, for the fire and EMS service, for some of the businesses along the river and for the city, was definitely a valuable learning experience, even though it was extremely frustrating at the time," Flemion said.