Governor Larry Hogan said on Twitter on Thursday night that state agencies were providing support to Port Deposit and other towns around the Conowingo Dam.
“I urge all local residents to put safety first and heed all warnings from local officials,” he tweeted.’
Recent rainstorms in the region have pelted record amounts of rain — and produced historic flows. By late Thursday night, operators had opened 20 of the dam’s 53 spill gates to cope with the rising Susquehanna River, and more were expected to be opened within hours. A spokesperson for Exelon, which owns the dam, said the river is likely to crest behind the dam sometime early Friday.
Rising waters at the dam prompted a voluntary evacuation of Port Deposit on Thursday as well as warnings from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to avoid the surrounding waters.
“It is vitally important that anglers and boaters avoid the area downstream of the dam,” including in the upper Chesapeake Bay, Maryland Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton said in a statement. He added that the problems were likely to continue through the weekend.
A voluntary evacuation for the Cecil County town of Port Deposit was announced Thursday morning. Additionally, Susquehanna River Road, between the town and the dam, was closed, according to Wayne Tome Sr., the town’s mayor.
An emergency shelter was set up at Bainbridge Elementary School, and the American Red Cross dispatched an emergency response vehicle with food. Residents in need of help should report to Town Hall at 64 S. Main St. or call 410-378-2121.
People should move their belongings and vehicles from low-lying areas of town that could be affected, such as parking lots “that are usually inundated with floodwaters,” Tome said.
There was no water in the downtown area, which is close to the Susquehanna River shore, as of Thursday morning, the mayor said. Electric service to the town, which is provided by Delmarva Power, might have to be shut off “at some point,” Tome said.
Opened in 1928, the Conowingo Dam spans the river between Harford and Cecil counties and generates hydroelectric energy from river water drawn through its 11 turbines.
Operators had opened 13 of the dam’s 50 spill gates by late Wednesday afternoon to handle the steadily rising waters of the Susquehanna River after days of historic rain. An additional five gates were opened by midmorning Thursday and two more were opened by late afternoon.
“Because of increased flows on the Susquehanna River due to heavy rains in Pennsylvania and New York, the Conowingo Dam has opened crest gates along its spillway,” officials with Exelon Generation said in a statement provided by spokesperson Deena O’Brien.
Belton, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the overflows were likely to affect the bay’s long-term health, since the dam was no longer able to trap pollutants.
“We will be monitoring the flow from the Susquehanna River and all its related impacts on the bay, both in the short and long term,” Belton said in a statement. “While it is too early to say what effects these storms will have, there certainly will be impact on the health of Chesapeake Bay and the broader watershed.”
Exelon Generation emphasized its “strong relationships with the local communities surrounding the Dam” and stated it will “continue to work closely with state and local authorities to provide updates and minimize any impacts to local residents.”
Government officials on both sides of the river were watching the situation closely to determine the risk of flooding in communities downriver, such as Havre de Grace and Port Deposit. Both municipalities have suffered damage from flooding caused by prior storms, such as Tropical Storm Lee in 2011, a near record spring flood in the early 1990s and Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972.
“Our emergency services and the county administration are constantly monitoring the situation and in contact with Conowingo Dam [operators],” Cindy Mumby, spokesperson for the Harford County government, said Wednesday, shortly before a 5 p.m. conference call with local officials and the dam operators.
The City of Havre de Grace posted a warning on its Facebook page that up to 27 dam spill gates are expected to be open by noon Friday. That means there could be flooding in low-lying parts of the city, according to the notice.
The Town of Port Deposit has the spill condition hotline number posted on its website, along with links to the National Weather Service and the town’s responses depending on how many dam gates are open.
The persistent rainfall had left Harford and Cecil counties by early Thursday morning; however, local and regional forecasts from the National Weather Service were still calling for occasional showers through the weekend. Soils are saturated, which can exacerbate flooding during repetitive rainfall, the NWS noted in its storm advisories.
Facts about flooding and safety tips are available on the Harford County website.
“We always recommend that folks monitor the weather, take steps to be prepared, and check in on elderly neighbors and vulnerable populations to help everyone stay safe,” Mumby wrote in an email. “We have been messaging on social media, including reminders to ‘[turn] around, don’t drown.’ Flowing water that is only six inches deep can knock you off your feet.”
Up to 11 inches of rain had fallen in Harford County as of Tuesday, and there were short periods of rainfall throughout Wednesday.
Outdoor activities have been curtailed or canceled each day at the Harford County Farm Fair since it started Monday. The 31st annual fair remained open, though, with admission reduced to $2 Wednesday.
Vendors and children’s activities at the Kidway were available, along with 4-H and animal exhibitions. Carnival rides would operate “as weather permits,” according to the fair’s Facebook page.
“We’re telling people to wear their boots and enjoy the fair,” Aimee O’Neill, co-chair of the fair board of directors, said.
Horse pulling shows were canceled, along with the second annual Chef’s Challenge. Organizers had tried to reschedule the Chef’s Challenge after it was canceled Tuesday along with the majority of activities because of the weather, but chefs from two of the three restaurants scheduled to participate could not attend the makeup date.
The fair is scheduled to run through Saturday. Call 410-838-8663, visit the fair website at http://www.farmfair.org or see the Harford County Farm Fair page on Facebook for more information and weather updates.