PORT DEPOSIT - While walking along this riverfront town's Main Street in September to see firsthand the flood damage from Tropical Storm Ivan, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. turned to Mayor Robert Flayhart and said: "We were lucky. It looks like Port Deposit dodged the bullet, right?"
Flayhart agreed. But it was through no kindness of Mother Nature that this 19th-century community escaped the full wrath of the storm.
Much of the credit goes to the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, a little-known federal agency on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg, Pa., that now faces its own threat - not from rising water, but from federal budget cuts.
The multistate agency, formed in 1970, has as its crown jewel the Susquehanna River Flood Forecasting and Warning System, run in partnership with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the National Weather Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Using weather forecasts and gauges along the 32,000 miles of waterway that feed the Susquehanna, the system warned the 700 residents of Port Deposit 16 hours in advance about Ivan's floodwaters.
"Every minute, every hour that folks have to get out of harm's way is critical," said Paul O. Swartz, executive director of the commission, which oversees water management along the river's 444 miles from Cooperstown, N.Y., to Havre de Grace.
For the past two years, however, the federal government has eliminated the $1.3 million usually set aside for the forecast system. Instead of funding the program directly, Congress has told the National Weather Service to pay for the system from its budget - without giving the agency the funds.
Susan Obleski, a spokeswoman for the commission, said there is concern that funding for the service may completely disappear. "We need the money to maintain the system, to keep the river gauges operating," she said.
In a letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski urged full funding of a program they call essential to reducing flood damage and protecting businesses and homes.
Loss of the warning system would be a tragedy, said Del. David D. Rudolph, a Democrat from Rising Sun.
"It is essential for the safety of everyone who lives along the Susquehanna River," said Rudolph. "It has to be maintained."
Peter Gabrielsen, chief of the hydrologic service division for the eastern region of the National Weather Service, said he would continue putting money into the system as long as he could.
He said the system's equipment is being patched and that repairs are being put off.
"We don't know how much longer we can do this," he said. "It is becoming more and more difficult to keep it running" at the current budget level.
Response to floods
The early-warning system was created after devastating floods in 1972 and 1975. It is part of the commission's mandate to coordinate flood-control activities upstream and is credited with helping to reduce the threat of floods in towns along the Susquehanna.
In the case of Tropical Storm Ivan, the system gave Port Deposit residents time to move furniture, books, electrical appliances and other belongings to safe locations.
It enabled the operators of the Conowingo Dam, about five miles north of town, to reduce the size of the pond behind the dam to make way for the coming water, according to Ted Caddell, a spokesman for Exelon Corp., which owns and operates the hydroelectric dam.
"It is not a flood-control dam," Caddell said of Conowingo. "And we were limited in what we could do, but we knew the water was coming and did what we could to reduce flooding downstream."
135 billion gallons held
More important, the Army Corps of Engineers held back 135 billion gallons of water at its 14 flood-control reservoirs in New York and Pennsylvania. That would be enough water to fill a hole the size of a football field 70 miles deep, said Stan Brua, an engineer with the corps' water resources section in Baltimore.
The additional volume would have added 7 percent to the already swollen flow of the Susquehanna, according to Rich Olin, chief of the water resources section. That would have required Conowingo's operators to open three more floodgates, bringing the total to 36, said Caddell.
"That would have flooded the entire north end of town," said Flayhart. "The town would have been impassable from Center Street north. About 75 percent of the homes would have been flooded."
It would have brought a surge of water into Donald and Carlene Poist's kitchen and living room, instead of stopping at the back door of their yellow clapboard home on Main Street, which was damaged in 1972 by flood waters from Tropical Storm Agnes.
"We lost everything in 1972," said Carlene Poist, "including my drapery shop."
"We had 4 feet of water in the house," said her husband. "It came so fast. We had no warning, no time to prepare."
'We were lucky'
"We were lucky this time," said Donald Poist, a councilman and former mayor. "The warning came early enough for us to move things to the second floor."
Flayhart said the early warning gave him time to print and distribute fliers advising residents to move belongings upstairs, shut off oil tanks and make them water-tight, and take other action.
"We had time to bring in four of those big National Guard trucks, just in case we had to evacuate people," Flayhart said. "We had them standing by."
Early estimates of damage throughout the river basin ranged from $200 million to $300 million, including $1 million at Port Deposit. But the damage could have been much greater.
Swartz said the holding back of floodwaters by the corps prevented more than $1.6 billion in additional damages to homes and businesses in the 27,500- square-mile river basin. He estimated that the commission's flood-forecasting system reduces flood damage by about $32 million a year.
"For every dollar invested by the federal government, the system saves $20 through reduced damages and reduced payouts through the federal flood insurance program," he said.
That's why he and lawmakers throughout the three-state region want assurance that funding will continue.
"Eliminating direct funding for a proven system that protects lives and prevents countless millions in flood damages each year certainly does a disservice to the residents and businesses of the Susquehanna River Basin," said Swartz.