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At Port Deposit, Havre de Grace, the usual drill


As soon as the rain clouds departed, residents of Port Deposit and Havre de Grace, hamlets on opposite shores of the Susquehanna River, knew what to expect. Water, lots of it, perhaps enough to fill the streets, flood basements, upset boats and smash docks.

And so, those who live in these peaceful riverside towns in northeast Maryland started to do what they always do after a big storm passes. They began the laborious job of moving beloved possessions, including antiques, pets and flowering tomato plants, to higher ground because they know torrents of water are headed downriver toward them.

"That's life in Port Deposit," said former Mayor Donald Poist.

"If you live here, you just keep smiling and keep going," said former Councilman Dave Knox.

Officials at Conowingo Dam, which is upriver from Port Deposit and Havre de Grace, say they will need to open 24 to 26 gates by tomorrow to accommodate a rush of rainwater headed from New York and Pennsylvania to the Chesapeake Bay.

The more gates they open, the greater the risk of flooding.

Residents in both towns have dealt with floods before - gates at the dam were opened in 2004 after Tropical Storm Ivan, in 2003 after Tropical Storm Isabel, and in 1972 after Tropical Storm Agnes - and most know the right moment to begin moving furniture and taking up the rugs.

"We have to wait until all of the rain goes into the rivers," said Kim Dooling, 39, a lifelong resident of Port Deposit who lives with her husband, Allen, in a house across North Main Street from her parents, Archie and Vicki Singleton.

The couples spent part of the morning yesterday chatting and smoking on the Singletons' porch. "There's not a whole lot we can do at this point," said Vicki Singleton.

Still, others, fueled by a certain nervous energy that comes with every flood warning, jumped into action, a full two days before officials predicted floodwaters would crest. Riverside residents of Pennsylvania and New York were already in evacuation mode, a sign of possible trouble to come.

"We're trying to get all of our material up here," said building site supervisor Randall Holman from the raised skeletal first floor of a new condominium on Port Deposit's Main Street. Holman said he hoped his crew would have enough of the floor finished by the end of the day to store particleboard and lumber there, several feet above the flood plain.

"We've got to get this built before the floodwaters come," he said. "I'd hate to lose that stuff. That's $5,000 worth of lumber."

At a dock in Havre de Grace, Daryl Goldsborough wasn't taking any chances with his 26-foot sailboat, Isabelle.

The $20,000 vessel was totaled in Hurricane Isabel and bought by Goldsborough and a friend at auction. After rebuilding the sailboat, the friends named it after the storm that nearly destroyed it.

But with word that the water level would surely rise by Friday morning, Goldsborough said he didn't want to risk any new damage. He put the boat on a trailer and moved it to a nearby parking lot.

"We just like to play it safe," said Goldsborough, 50, of Coatesville, Pa.

At Port Deposit's Town Hall, Mayor Rob Flayhart, Deputy Mayor Kerry Abrams and Town Administrator Sharon Weygand spent part of the morning preparing fliers to distribute to residents of North Main Street, a low-lying section of town that floods first.

As fliers spewed out of the copier, they reviewed the latest news from Conowingo Dam and discussed plans to open the emergency operations center.

"We're looking at a lot less impact than Ivan," said Flayhart, referring to the tropical storm that caused an estimated $1 million in flood damage to the town nearly two years ago.

The atmosphere at Town Hall was calm, with a few residents and tourists popping in for storm news, until a visitor said the word "flood."

Suddenly Weygand gasped. "We try not to say 'flood.'" she said. "It's a 'high-water event.'"

Abrams and other town officials prefer "high-water event" because they believe it doesn't send the same message of panic that "flood" does.

"'High-water event' keeps a certain calm to it," Abrams said.

"It's also not a bunch of people standing around in short pants," said Flayhart.

It's goofy humor like that, said Abrams, that keeps town officials going in times of crisis. So it was no surprise to Abrams that Police Chief Joe Swam told a visitor that with a surname like his he should have no problem surviving the floodwaters, or that Flayhart waved his arms at a news helicopter that flew over the town and yelled, "Hi, Dad!"

Explained Abrams, "That's what gets us through times like this."

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