Flood cresting lower, earlier

Officials in Port Deposit said Saturday that 30 floodgates remained open at the Conowingo Dam as water steadily receded, though the town remained under its mandatory evacuation.

"It's looking a lot better than yesterday," said Mike Dixon, Cecil County spokesman. "The water is slowly receding, so it appears the worst has passed. But it will take some time for it to clear out."

As Port Deposit and Havre de Grace continued to deal with flooding and debris in the streets Friday, the Conowingo Dam's operator said a surge in water coming down the Susquehanna River, officials had anticipated opening all of the Dam's 50 floodgates; the most that were opened during the flooding caused by heavy rains from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee was 43 on Thursday night.

"We never got there, and as the event continues to unfold, the numbers have gotten better," Dixon said, adding that officials would soon begin damage assessments as the water continued to recede, though it was too early to say when clean-up efforts might begin and the town's residents could return.

Officials with Exelon Hydro, a division of Exelon Power, said in a release that it would open no more than 33 crest gates Saturday along the Conowingo Dam spillway to manage the Susquehanna River flow.

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

All but 40 residents had fled under the county's mandatory evacuation Friday, and the town opened a shelter, but closed it after only one person retreated there.

The situation was bad enough, with residents wading or paddling canoes through murky, smelly, oily water that covered backyards and reached as high as the porches of some homes along Port Deposit's Main Street.

"If it stays like this, we'll be OK. But my concern is we haven't gotten it all yet," said Kathi Leeds, who has lived in the town for more than 20 years and was checking on a friend's condominium. "A lot of cleanup is going to have to be done. It's just a waiting game now."

At 10 p.m. Friday, only 35 floodgates were open, Cecil County emergency managers said. Based on flow projections, Exelon Energy Corp. expected to open 40 at most, company officials said.

Emergency managers downstream had been told that such fluctuations were possible but should not cause major changes in water levels in the towns.

At midafternoon, Cecil County officials said they expected water levels to stay "relatively flat over the next 24 hours. We will stay in major flood stage [over 28.5 feet] until noon Sunday and not fall below flood stage [23.5 feet] until Monday."

Jim Poirier, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's forecast office in Mount Holly, N.J., said, "It's still probably going to rise some, and then recede overnight a little bit. With these fluctuations, it's probably impossible … to get a specific crest and time."

After a peak at 32.41 feet before dawn Friday, the flood was the third-highest since the dam was built, behind the record flood during Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972 and a winter storm in January 1996.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has requested a federal disaster declaration for Maryland in the wake of flooding from Hurricane Irene and the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee. If approved, the declaration would make federal resources available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist with the storm response and the recovery.

Cecil County officials reopened a shelter at Perryville High School on Friday afternoon as more people started to show up. All but about 40 people living in Port Deposit's flooded area had fled under mandatory evacuation orders, town officials said.

Gayle Wysock, the owner of C.M. Tugs Grub 'n Pub, was high and dry, preparing free meals for the people left in town and emergency workers. "It's our responsibility as a community to help out any way we can," she said. "It could be worse. We could be in [wildfire-ravaged] Texas and have nothing to come back to."

Cecil County spokesman Mike Dixon said things in town "are looking a little bit better, but we're still looking at some serious flooding."

The air in town smelled of spilled fuel, and amid the floating trash were propane tanks and home heating oil tanks. County authorities were sending swift-water rescue teams on patrol every three hours to survey the area and to check on people still in town, as well as to try to secure some of the fuel containers to prevent fire hazards.

Residents and neighbors, many carrying cameras, walked north on the railroad tracks parallel to the Susquehanna to view the water levels and damage.

Port Deposit Mayor Wayne L. Tome Sr. said police were monitoring the tracks — the only access to submerged areas of town — to prevent looting.

On Wednesday, officers arrested several people who were caught stealing guitars out of a condominium, Tome said. "Very swiftly, our police took care of it."

Samantha Brown, 15, who was walking on the railroad tracks Friday morning with a friend, said she helped her parents, owners of the Bees Nest Express Mini-Mart, carry all the food from their store to the second floor. They weren't leaving, because of fears of looters, she said.

"This business is my parents' life," she said.

Harford County Executive David Craig said that flooding in Havre de Grace did not seem quite as high as it was during Isabel in 2003, with "not very much damage at all. There are a lot of people driving into town to take pictures of the water," but police were handling the traffic.

Jeff Harris, owner of Starbird Canvas boating supply on Water Street said there was more than 2 feet of water filling his store. "It's gonna be a lot of work to clean it out."

Harris maintained a lighthearted mood, saying he knows there is nothing he can do to change the situation. "I'm amused," he said. "It ain't a big deal."

Melissa Utter of Aberdeen and her daughters, Autumn and Amanda Camara, marveled at nature's power while in town for a doctor's appointment. "I can't believe the rain can do this," 9-year-old Autumn said as she splashed down Water Street.

Utter said that the family had just moved to Aberdeen from Port Deposit. "We moved just in time," she said.

Mark Hasenei, came back to Havre de Grace on Friday to check on his restaurant, Price's Seafood, and was shocked to find that it had been burglarized.

The restaurant was missing a new 55-inch TV, a laptop and multiple checks. He believes that the combination of flooded roads and a lack of police presence in the partially evacuated town created the perfect opportunity for the robbery.

Havre de Grace police are investigating, and Hasenei plans to reopen as soon as the floodwaters ebb.

"It depends a lot on Mother Nature," he said.

The next major issue the upper Chesapeake will face will be environmental, Craig said.

"With all the sediment that's coming down, that is one of the things that really affected the Chesapeake Bay after Agnes," he said. When the sediment settles, it will adversely affect struggling bay grasses. And decades of accumulated sediment and old chemical pollutants behind the dam will have been scoured and released downstream.

Among the other worries that follow the storm are critters and storm debris.

Biologists urged people not to approach or handle wildlife that was displaced by floodwaters and might be seeking temporary shelter in or near homes and other buildings.

"The best strategy for humans is to leave these animals alone and just allow the waters to return to normal and the animals to do the same," said Paul Peditto, director of the state's Wildlife and Heritage Service.

In Annapolis, harbormaster J.P. "Flip" Walters warned residents with bayfront homes that debris carried through the Conowingo Dam will turn up in the bay and on their property in coming days. He said upriver flooding is worse than during the usual spring thaw and higher tides.

Anne Arundel police said there was no indication that the apparent drowning Wednesday of Daniel Lambert of Pasadena was flood-related.

Meanwhile, the rain in Central Maryland kept falling Friday for a fifth straight day. But the National Weather Service said the precipitation should taper off this weekend, leading to a sunny week ahead.

Rain chances diminish to 30 percent Saturday and Sunday, and 20 percent Sunday night.

With the rain fading away, state and local road crews face a long list of extensive repairs.

Anne Arundel County engineers found as the water receded Friday that 10 of the 17 roads closed during the flooding had washed away or sustained other major damage. Another 11 roads were partially blocked, some by downed trees and wires, others by flood damage that wiped out road shoulders and culvert pipes, or allowed the road to sink.

Flooding has also affected state parks. The Maryland Park Service released this list of closings for the weekend: Glen Artney area of Patapsco Valley State Park; the portion of the Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail (formerly the Northern Central Railroad Trail) between Phoenix Road and Glencoe Road; the Hills Grove of Rocks State Park; and areas along the Susquehanna River and Stafford Road of Susquehanna State Park.

Baltimore Sun reporters Liz F. Kay, Julie Baughman, Timothy B. Wheeler and Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.