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40 years after Agnes, officials say Laurel is better prepared for storms

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.

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.

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.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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