For residents of flood prone areas, riverfront living a trade-off

Calvin Owens knows that when he hears the boulders begin to roll away from the dam across the street from his Port Deposit home, it's time to pack an overnight bag.

It's happened three years in the past 10 he's lived in the area, and when he returned to his home — located along the main corridor of the town, one of the hardest-hit areas — on Saturday morning to a flooded basement, he made a plea that he's made many times before.

"I hope these rains stay away," Owens said. "Because when you hear those big old rocks, it's time to go."

The floodwaters that washed through communities along the Susquehanna River this week steadily receded Saturday, after having peaked at 32.4 feet Friday.

About 400 residents were allowed to return to low-lying areas of Havre de Grace, while an evacuation order for nearby Port Deposit remained in effect as officials in the harder-hit town of about 800 tried to get a handle on the damage from a flood that inundated homes, cut off power and scattered debris.

Residents give many reasons for making their homes along the Susquehanna. They can take in sweeping views along the river. They fish and boat in the waterway. They belong to small communities, but feel connected to two other states that share the river.

But the powerful river also brings a risk of flooding whenever heavy rains hit the Mid-Atlantic; the people who live there have come to accept that. It's never easy, they say, but it's worth it.

"Water comes in and water goes out, and it's an inconvenience," said Bill Harrington, a Port Deposit resident of 13 years, as he watched emergency crews cut through inches of mud on the town's Main Street. "But when you can go to your window and watch a bald eagle catch a fish — that's the trade-off."

Emergency workers, utility crews and residents in both areas trailed the receding waters, clearing debris and other obstacles that remained after floods that followed Tropical Storm Lee. Though Port Deposit remained closed off, some residents returned early in the day to survey the damage.

Harrington, who was deputy mayor of the city from 2003 until earlier this year, said he has seen the town weather several storms — including Hurricanes Ivan, Floyd and Isabel. Still, a disruptive storm that displaces residents is never run of the mill because of the drastic impact. Residents return to flooded basements and garages, no power or hot water, and dislodged propane tanks in their front yards.

But their efforts to recover are also tied to the Susquehanna. "The thing about living on the river is, when the river goes back to normal, we go back to normal," Harrington said.

Port Deposit officials said that as water levels steadily dropped and water receded at a faster pace than expected, their main focus was making sure that people returned to safe conditions.

Bob Thomas, spokesman for Harford County, said Havre de Grace experienced "an extremely rapid recovery."

On Saturday afternoon, state and local crews in both towns focused their efforts on clearing streets, removing hazardous material and securing electric lines for those who will be returning to their homes in the coming days.

About 450 customers in Port Deposit were without power Saturday night, a Delmarva Power spokeswoman said. In Havre de Grace, 99 percent of the 248 customers who had lost power since Thursday had service restored by Saturday night, said Rachael Lighty, spokeswoman for Baltimore Gas & Electric.

Cecil County spokesman Mike Dixon said officials were officially in "recovery mode" late Saturday, doing aerial land reviews of damage, which will continue into Sunday morning.

"The only acceptable level of success is 100 percent," said Richard Brooks, director of emergency services for Cecil County. "We can't have anyone going into a home that is dangerous."

Brooks said Port Deposit was already 24 hours ahead of schedule because water levels were decreasing and water was receding at a faster rate. He said the most significant damage would be found in private residences.

Linda Read, Laura Luongo, and Patricia Vargas of Port Deposit were already coming up with a plan that required rubber boots, a generator, a water heater, and three sets of hands to help mend their homes and businesses.

"Everybody pulls together," said Vargas. "We don't lay down and give up."

"Like they say, if you're lucky enough to live on the water — you're lucky enough," Read said.

Officials with Exelon Power, said that as of 8:45 p.m., 30 crest gates were open at the Conowingo Dam and the water levels were continuing to decrease.

Exelon said it planned to open no more than 33 crest gates — down from 43 on Thursday when the flooding first began — along the spillway to manage the Susquehanna River flow. At the outset of the flood, officials anticipated that they'd have to open all 50 of the floodgates.

"Projections are much lower even than what we had [Friday] night," said Valencia McClure, spokeswoman for Exelon. "We're definitely trinkling down."

In Havre de Grace, life appeared to be back to normal, with residents jogging and walking their dogs in the first pocket of consistent sunshine the area had seen in nearly a week.

"It's kind of like, 'what are you going to do? It's going to happen sometime,'" said Jim Scout, who said his family would just wait for the deep puddles of water to dry in their backyard. The storm was nothing compared to Hurricane Isabel, he said, which soaked the family home in knee-deep water.

"We're just glad that it wasn't as bad as they said it was going to be. But at least we don't have to cut the grass for a couple of days," he said

The minimal damage was also a relief to members of the local Susquehanna Hose Company, who spent the morning pushing back the inch-thick mud, left over from high tides the previous days.

Firefighter Chad Packard said he was prepared for long days and nights in recovery efforts, and was pleased to see the town had made it through the storm mostly unscathed.

"This is good," Packard said. "I get to watch the Ravens game tomorrow."

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