PORT DEPOSIT - Engineers began forming plans for shoring up a century-old retaining wall on a hillside in this picturesque Susquehanna River town yesterday, and fears subsided that a collapse might endanger as many as 16 homes and Town Hall.
Authorities said that they would monitor motion sensors during the night and that they had drawn up evacuation plans for some homes.
But this old river port's Mayor Robert Flayhart expressed confidence last night in the repair plan and said there is little danger of a wall collapse.
"It's very good news," Flayhart said during a news briefing as he stood in front of Town Hall and a granite block wall that climbs about 35 feet up a hill leading to the former Bainbridge Naval Training Center. "What we thought could be a major wall collapse has been reduced dramatically," he said.
The mayor's optimism was based on repair plans that are already being worked out. Drawing a sketch in a notepad, he said it would involve the construction of concrete-filled pylons that will be anchored to the ground and serve as braces to hold the wall in place.
Flayhart said that the section of the wall needing support was only about 75 yards long and that he did not know how many braces would be needed. "The [planning] work has already begun."
Flayhart's comments came after a team of about 25 engineers and geologists performed a series of tests throughout the day showing that the earth was no longer shifting along High Street, a short road that goes up the hill and behind homes on Main Street.
Core-drilling tests also showed that the High Street and hillside homes were just a few feet above "a solid foundation of bedrock."
"This means that even if the wall collapsed, the houses on High Street wouldn't fall, and there would be little material falling on the homes below," Flayhart said.
Yesterday's tests also confirmed suspicions that the damage was caused by water seeping beneath the road and then freezing, Flayhart said.
The town declared a state of emergency Sunday when cracks in High Street began to widen and portions of the road gave way and sloped on about a 15-degree angle toward the retaining wall. A portion of a small, one-lane bridge serving one house on High Street gave way and fell into a stream flowing into the Susquehanna.
The retaining wall, made of concrete and stone, showed signs of buckling, but it did not give way. Town officials were concerned that if the wall collapsed it would have showered about five homes on Main Street with dirt and large blocks of granite.
There were also concerns that if the wall gave way it could bring 11 homes along High Street tumbling down onto Main Street.
Town officials took precautions and even encouraged residents to evacuate their homes.
Flayhart was critical of a Baltimore radio station's report that the unstable wall caused 50 residents to evacuate their homes. "That's completely false," he said. "I don't know where they got that information."
Flayhart said last night that he did not know of a single family evacuating its home.
Bill Eldred, who lives at 54 Main St., directly below the section of the retaining wall showing the most damage, said he had no plan to leave. "I guess I'm fearless," he said with a smile.
Kerry Anne Abrams, the deputy mayor, who lives at 29 High St., also stayed in her home.
She said she began noticing cracks in the road in front of her home on Monday of last week. "They kept getting bigger and bigger," she said. "Then on Thursday night the bridge up the road fell and there were signs that the retaining wall was pushing out."
Although town residents stayed home, the town library closed and took some precautions to protect at least some of its materials.
The library is on the second floor of Town Hall. Eadele Cruise, the library's facilities manager, said Port Deposit Police Chief Mark L. Tomlin suggested the closing.
She said staff members began taking out valuables - computers, fax machines, new books, videos and CDs - and storing them at the library's main office in Elkton.
"Take everything of value with you, the police chief told us," said Cruise. "That's what we did. Better to be safe than sorry. We were protecting the taxpayers' property."
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a 1st District Republican, toured the damaged area with Tomlin in a golf cart yesterday afternoon. At the end of the tour he said that he would "scour the federal maze" looking for money to help pay for the repairs needed to shore up the wall.
"I'm confident we can find a mix of federal and state dollars to pay for the repairs," he said. "We will act as quickly as possible."
Flayhart said that town officials will monitor motion sensors placed along High Street throughout the night, "every hour, on the hour."
If there is a problem, he said, plans are already in place to notify the approximately 35 residents who might need to be evacuated.
Police Chief Tomlin said that an emergency shelter would likely be established at the Bainbridge Elementary School if needed.