Commentary: On the fringes of a historic event

Tropical Storm Agnes' visit to Havre de Grace, Port Deposit and Perryville, and the rest of Harford and Cecil counties 40 years ago this week was the last big news story in Harford that I didn't cover.

That's not to say I don't remember Agnes. I not only remember her, but I was in Harford briefly, probably on Thursday, June 22, 1972, when the storm was passing through and I was interviewing for a reporter position at The Aegis in Bel Air. At the time, I had been living in Ocean City and editing the Maryland Coast Press, but I was hoping to move to Harford County, and there was a job opening at The Aegis.

The day I interviewed with Robbie Wallis, the editor, the news staff, which consisted of Jack McLaughlin, Sandi Westervelt Davidson and Todd Holden, plus sports editor Peter Schlehr, already had a sense something big was happening. As I recall, it was raining and reports about high water were rapidly being broadcast over the police monitor that was in the center of the old newsroom. I recall Wallis telling McLaughlin a couple of times during our interview that they probably should be checking out this report or that one, with their cameras, as all the reporters in those days carried cameras.

As I headed back to Ocean City the next day through Delaware, there were continued forecasts of heavy rain and warnings about local flooding, but it was apparently still too early in the game for people to understand what they were about to experience. By then, Agnes had moved up the coast and inland over northern Pennsylvania, where the improbable happened: the storm split into two centers that stalled right over the heart of the Susquehanna River basin, where it rained torrents for a couple of days.

A couple of hundred miles downriver, chaos ensued. If you read the newspaper accounts from that time, you realize how very lucky the three lower river towns, Havre de Grace, Perryville and Port Deposit were because there were genuine concerns that the Conowingo Dam wouldn't hold back the raging river.

I started working at The Aegis about a month after Agnes. My first assignment was covering Havre de Grace, and during the first meeting of the mayor and city council that I covered, accompanied by McLaughlin, Agnes was the principal topic of discussion.

I was impressed by how thankful everyone was that the city had been spared and for all the aid rendered by police, fire units, the American Red Cross and other organizations. Many people had left on their own or were evacuated, and there was still considerable damage to be dealt with, but elected officials and citizens alike vowed they would recover, and they largely did.

I recall writing a number of stories at this time about Lilly Run flooding and how Agnes had once again sent a warning that the city needed to come up with a better flood control plan (sound familiar)? Other stories dealt with the Municipal Yacht Basin in Tydings Park that had suddenly become too shallow for many of the boats because of all the muck and debris brought down the Susquehanna during the storm. City officials also wondered if their plans for a new park on the north end of town would have to be postponed because most of the property had become waterlogged.

Big storms and natural disasters tend to stay with us long after they happen, particularly for people who have been right in the middle of them. I was only on the fringes of Agnes, and 40 years later, there's much I recall about the storm. Others we've talked to for the anniversary story inside this week's edition have even more vivid recollections about Agnes, and why not? She clearly was one girl in a million you weren't going to forget - ever.

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