A state of emergency has been called by town officials in Port Deposit after the appearance of bulges and fissures in a century-old retaining wall, whose failure could reduce a local road and 10 historically significant houses to rubble.
"It's scary," said Donald N. Poist Sr., a Town Council member and former mayor. "I'm 72 years old and I don't ever remember us having a concern anything similar to this."
Port Deposit, a Cecil County hamlet on the Susquehanna River, has been a victim of the river's floods. But this emergency has nothing to do with the river. Rather, heavy rains and melting snowfall are to blame, said Mayor Robert Flayhart in a statement released yesterday.
Water pressure has built up behind the retaining wall, he said, forcing sections of the concrete-and-rock structure to bow and crumble. Fluctuating temperatures, which have caused water behind the wall to freeze and thaw, have also weakened the barrier, officials said.
"This year, the town has been dealing with record rainfall ... putting water pressure on the aging retaining wall," Flayhart said.
The retaining wall supports High Street, a dead-end road climbing a rocky hill that is home to several families. If the wall falls apart, the road and houses could follow, officials said.
Another concern is that rubble from the wall could damage structures on Main Street, Port Deposit's civic and commercial center. Flayhart's house and Town Hall are potential victims.
"It's a very pathetic situation because we're talking about people's lifetime investments," said Poist. "Regardless of name or title, it's a tragedy."
Deputy Mayor Kerry Anne Abrams, who lives in a house located above the retaining wall on High Street, noticed weaknesses in the wall Thursday afternoon, Flayhart said. That night, a portion of a bridge that abuts the wall collapsed - prompting town leaders to notify county officials, who recruited geologists and geotechnical engineers to assess the situation.
As a result, monitoring devices will be installed in the wall today, and a plan is in the works to stabilize the wall and hillside above it, town officials said.
Last night, town officials were making visual checks of the wall every hour, Abrams said. Fire officials had placed hoses near the endangered houses in case of a blaze erupting from a collapse.
Residents of High Street were notified Saturday that they should be ready to evacuate at a minute's notice.
High Street, which was crisscrossed with cracks in places also due to pressure, was closed to traffic Friday. Since then, residents have had to walk, carrying groceries and other supplies up the hill to their houses.
Abrams, who was working telephones at Town Hall last night, said she was too busy dealing with the wall to worry about her home.
"It's hard to separate the two: my personal role with my official role," said Abrams, 44, who grew up in the 1920s house that was built as part of the Jacob Tome Institute, a school for boys. "But I'll probably be the last one to leave if it comes to that."
Engineers left the town last night, Abrams said, leaving wall monitoring to town officials and volunteer firefighters until the morning.
"If we see something, we will make the decision what to do next," she said. "We will use common sense."