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News Maryland Howard County

40 years later, Howard looks back at Tropical Storm Agnes

Tooling along on a Harley Sprint motorcycle in June 1972, Bob Miller alternated between taking main roads and riding alongside the railroad next to the swollen Patapsco River as he wove his way from Sykesville to Elkridge, filming scene after scene of destruction in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Agnes.

As a lifelong resident of the area dubbed "The Hill," where homes sit high above the Patapsco and Historic Main Street in Ellicott City, Miller took the 25-mile trip out of curiosity and as a way to merge his two loves, motorcycle riding and amateur filmmaking.

Still, he couldn't believe what his Kodak camera was recording — tossed-aside sections of mangled railroad tracks, ribbons of blacktop with huge chunks missing, logjams of cars, and a bare concrete foundation where a gas station had stood.

"I saw Abel in 1952 and Hazel in 1954, but I'd never seen anything like Agnes before," said Miller, now 73, who works as a videographer after retiring from a career as an engineer. He had traveled along Marriottsville Road in Woodstock, through the town of Daniels, and then continued along River Road in Ellicott City, among other stops.

It took some time to get the images, since the 8-mm roll of film used back then could only record for three minutes per cassette before it had to be switched out, said Miller, who got his first Brownie camera at age 13.

But he got a chance to screen his work last week for 100 members of Patapsco Heritage Greenway as they gathered to observe this year's 40th anniversary of Agnes, which caused floods that took seven lives and caused $20 million in damages to the Ellicott City area.

A marker at the base of Main Street near the B&O Railroad Museum, which Miller said was boarded up at the time and escaped mostly unharmed, shows the river rose 14.5 feet above street level.

Enalee Bounds, owner of Ellicott's Country Store since 1962, provided a brief eyewitness account for the group, which meets regularly in the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building, located in the county office complex off Court House Drive. (Formerly known as Friends of Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway, the organization's name was shortened after a vote Tuesday by members.)

Bounds explained how residents and business owners in Ellicott City managed to pull off the scheduled bicentennial celebration of the town's 1772 founding by throwing themselves into a massive cleanup effort alongside firefighters and other workers for two arduous weeks. Parades were held daily along Main Street, as planned.

"Everyone brought every child they had [to help out,] but you still would never have thought we could get it all straight," she said. "It was like a miracle. You couldn't see anything of what had happened."

She said her store, located near the intersection of Main Street and Old Columbia Pike, maintained regular business hours after the storm since "floodwaters didn't rise that high up the street."

Bounds later added that Agnes' devastation, which mainly affected the businesses on the south side of Main Street that back up to the Patapsco tributary popularly called the Tiber River, was clear evidence of nature's raw power.

"The wind and rain broke out the windows of businesses and washed their contents onto Main Street," she recalled. "And there was an incredible amount of mud" from erosion washing down into low-lying Ellicott City and from the Patapsco River rising up.

"You can't stop nature," she said. "You really can't."

John Teichmoeller, a former board member and transportation buff, spoke about Agnes' impact on the railroad in the Patapsco River Valley. He read a dramatic account written by one of two men trapped atop a caboose overnight. A helicopter pilot managed to rescue them just as floodwaters washed over the train car.

Andrew Miller, an associate professor of geography at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County spoke earlier in the evening. During a question-and-answer session later, he said that it took a year to remove disabled trains and that railroad executives considered abandoning the line for a time. Some properties were not rebuilt after the storm, he said. after their owners made "a conscious decision to avoid risk."

Ellicott City was hit hard last year by Hurricane Irene, which flooded Main Street and cut off power to many. But experts estimate it will be 135 years before there's another flood of Agnes' magnitude, Miller said, cautioning that error margins for such forecasts are very large. Since Main Street lies in a 100-year flood plain there is a 1 percent chance of such a storm occurring each year, he noted.

Narrow, steep valleys such as the Patapsco River Valley "make for incredible devastation," he said, explaining that runoff travels at a higher velocity and that much more sediment and debris comes off the slopes and quickly accumulates.

Bob Miller still rides motorcycles. He keeps his four newer models in the two-car garage of the Catonsville home he shares with his wife, Kathy, who is also his video-recording partner. They use a digital video camera nowadays in volunteer and paid assignments that include recording meetings, phases of construction projects, graduations and dance recitals.

Thinking back to 1972, he said he probably would have retraced the route he took on his motorcycle to record how the places he'd visited earlier had fared after Agnes departed — but he had broken his ankle playing softball and found himself in a thigh-high cast.

"I missed the whole cleanup, but when they put me in a smaller cast, I did teach myself to ride a unicycle," he said, chuckling. "If I hadn't missed out, I would have really had a complete history."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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