After heavy rains from remnants of Tropical Storm Lee washed away bridges and roads, overwhelmed sewage systems and may have contributed to at least one Baltimore-area death, the runoff threatened to overwhelm Maryland towns along the Susquehanna River with the biggest flood in almost 40 years.
On Friday morning, Cecil County officials said all but 12 downtown Port Deposit residents had obeyed the evacuation order and left town. Only a dozen went to the town's shelter at Perryville High School, and county spokesman Mike Dixon said it would be closed over low attendance.
The night before, evacuating residents were walking through the murky waters — at times knee-deep — on Main Street and along the train tracks, carrying whatever baggage they could handle. Businesses on the west side of Main Street were already being lapped by the rushing Susquehanna.
The river was forecast to crest at Conowingo dam at 8 p.m. Friday — 10 hours earlier than earlier predictions — and had also been revised downward by about three feet, to 32.3. The record 36.83 feet was set in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Agnes in June 1972.
Exelon Energy Corp., the hydroelectric dam's owner, opened 40 floodgates late Thursday and had warned that all 50 of the main floodgates would be open by 11 a.m. Friday, triggering evacuations in the riverside towns of Port Deposit and Havre de Grace.
On Friday, Dixon said only 48 gates would be open. As of 3:30 a.m., 43 floodgates were open.
"Things are looking a little bit better, but we're still looking at some serious flooding" in Port Deposit, Dixon said.
Port Deposit Mayor Wayne L. Tome Sr. had urged residents to pack emergency kits and leave, noting that all electric, water and wastewater services would be interrupted for the duration of the flooding. A mandatory evacuation took effect at 8 p.m. Thursday.
"This is the most significant [flood] since I've been alive," Tome said.
This week's rains, which are expected to continue Friday, triggered damage across the Baltimore region. At Patapsco Valley State Park, visitors had to be evacuated after the river suddenly surged over its banks. Several bridges in Baltimore County, including one over Norris Run near Reisterstown, were severely damaged. And significant sewage spills were reported in several localities.
But the most serious problems arose in waterside communities such as Port Deposit and Havre de Grace.
Port Deposit's residents (821 in the last census) were "not too happy" about the evacuation, Tome said, adding, "They're pretty calm; nobody's going crazy. Most of the older folks are used to it. They respect and know the river, and they … instill some calm in fellow residents that haven't been here that long."
Jeremy and Cristina Justice shouldered heavy backpacks as they awaited their ride out of Port Deposit. A foot of water was flowing through the first floor of their North Main Street home by Thursday evening.
"The water has been cascading in," said Jeremy. "It's probably going to reach the second floor."
"We're going to be cleaning up a lot of mud and silt when we get back," said Jeremy, a 25-year resident of the town who has evacuated several times in the past. The Justices are independent contractors and expect to handle many repairs on their neighbors' home as well, once floodwaters recede.
Some 400 residents of low-lying sections of Havre de Grace were also ordered out Thursday as the water began spilling into the lower levels of riverfront homes.
"The Havre de Grace Police Department is going door to door, to make sure everyone who needs to get out has gotten out," said Harford County spokesman Ben Lloyd.
The town's most critical concern Thursday night was the county-owned Citizens' Care & Rehabilitation Center, where about 165 residents, most of them frail or handicapped and elderly, had to be moved out, according to Harford County Executive David Craig.
At 8 p.m., more than 30 ambulances, five Harford County Transit buses and one medical aid bus from Howard County were lined up to move residents to similar facilities in Harford and Baltimore counties.
During Hurricane Agnes in 1972, floodwaters reached the rear of the building, said Dave Williams, spokesman for Harford County Fire and Emergency Assistance. His supervisors were guessing that this week's flooding could be worse — a situation that could lead to dangerous power outages. Water had reached the back boundary of the property by Thursday night.
"This has the appearance of a crisis situation, but this is a proactive operation," said Williams, as nursing home and emergency workers helped residents, many of them in wheelchairs or on stretchers. Nursing home officials were still finding facilities for some of the residents, who were likely to be in their temporary quarters for several days, Williams said.
Harford County will close five schools Friday: Havre de Grace Elementary, Havre de Grace Middle, Havre de Grace High, Meadowvale Elementary and Aberdeen High School. Aberdeen High will be used as a shelter.
Elsewhere, torrential rainfall brought on by the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee flooded dozens of Baltimore-area roads, and sent the water rising out of rivers and creeks. Rescue crews responded to more than a dozen calls of stranded drivers since midnight Thursday.
The deluge produced sewage overflows around the metro area.
In the city, a "significant" day-long gusher occurred in the 2200 block of Broening Highway. A city spokeswoman estimated that the overflow into nearby Colgate Creek could approach a million gallons.
Though the spill was reported around 8 a.m., a repair crew was unable to get at the problem until the storm-swollen flow abated, said Celeste Amato, spokeswoman for the city's Department of Public Works. Crews were later working to re-route the sewage flow.
Anne Arundel County health officials closed Cox Creek in Brooklyn to swimming after an overflow of at least 10,000 gallons from the vicinity of the Cox Creek sewage pumping station.
And in Baltimore County, officials reported a sewage overflow in the 1200 block of Sulphur Spring Road in Arbutus. That leak, which began Wednesday afternoon, was fixed by late Thursday, according to David Fidler, county public works spokesman. He estimated the sewage release at 15,000 gallons.
Heavy rain was still falling Thursday in Central Maryland, but the focus shifted west from Baltimore's suburbs, said meteorologist Heather Sheffield, at the National Weather Service's regional forecast office in Sterling, Va.
In the next few days, the storm's center will move north-northeast, Sheffield said. "But … there will still be a chance for some showers and possible thunderstorms. … It's not going to move out until late this weekend."
It's been more than enough already.
A flood warning was in effect through 8:30 p.m. Thursday for communities south of Baltimore to St. Mary's County. A flash flood watch was posted for all of Central Maryland until 2 a.m. Friday.
"Major" flood stage for the Susquehanna River at Conowingo is at 28.5 feet, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. At 6:30 p.m. Thursday the water stood at 31.47 feet, the third-highest in the 40-year historic record for the dam. It was forecast to reach 35.8 feet by Saturday morning.
In Port Deposit, there are about 500 people living in the zone likely to be flooded. River floods in Port Deposit don't arrive as raging currents. Thanks to the railroad, much of the town is shielded from a direct assault. Instead, the water rises up out of the storm drains and gradually inundates property on the flood plain and — at least in 1972 — fills them with mud.
"Now we're hoping we're spared the mud. But we'll see," Tome said.
Port Deposit's mayor issued a state of emergency at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. Authorities opened a shelter for evacuees at Perryville High School, though they said Friday only a dozen residents spent the previous night. Because of the low number, Dixon said Friday the shelter would be closed. Nine residents made arrangements to stay with friends or relatives, and county Social Services was making arrangements for the other three.
If they come back to flooded basements, or worse, they will find plenty of company and a long wait for help.
Homeowners with flooded basements jammed the phone lines of companies that specialize in handling water damage.
"We're working night and day, and we'll be working through the weekend. But we have a waiting list more than a week out," said Glenda Nichols at ServPro of Baltimore, which has 15 trucks on the road. "We are struggling to keep up. The worst part is running out of equipment, like dehumidifiers, and having to wait."
The storm meant instant recovery for the region's water reserves.
Baltimore's three reservoirs were reported to be overflowing. Amato said, "Loch Raven is 4.93 feet over crest. Prettyboy is 2.97 feet over crest. We are releasing some water from Prettyboy, but only about 150 [cubic feet per second], an insignificant amount compared with what is going over the spillway."
Farther south, the heavy rains have helped to refill the three reservoirs behind the Duckett, Brighton and Seneca dams, which serve water customers of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.
"We had been quite dry before this time," said WSSC spokeswoman Kira Lewis. The dams, in Montgomery and Howard counties, remained sound.
Moving around was frequently dangerous.
Anne Arundel County police are investigating a drowning in Pasadena Wednesday night, but it's not clear whether it was related to the storm, said police spokesman Justin Mulcahy.
Firefighters responded to the 400 block of Riverside Drive at 9:35 p.m. and pulled Daniel Lambert, 49, from water behind the homes. Lambert, who lives on that block, was taken to Baltimore Washington Medical Center, where he later died, Mulcahy said.
In the Avalon area of Patapsco Valley State Park just off U.S. 1, rangers and staff were startled to see the Patapsco River jump its banks just after noon on Wednesday.
"The Patapsco exploded, and it exploded quickly," said Maj. Daryl Anthony. "We were just short of being caught off guard, the water came up so quickly."
Staff members moved quickly to evacuate visitors from the Orange Grove and Glen Artney areas to prevent them from being stranded as the river covered River Road, engulfed Lost Lake and put the playground under 6 feet of water.
Baltimore County reported at least six bridges damaged, destroyed or under water in the wake of the storm. And engineers have more to inspect, according to county public works spokesman David Fidler.
One of them is the bridge over Norris Run, on Gore's Mill Road, near Reisterstown. A county website described it as "washed away." Photos show damaged asphalt and bent guard rails.
There are at least 17 houses on Gore's Mill Road, between Nicodemus and Cockeys Mill roads. One is both home and office to Kenneth and Carolyn Stinson.
"I didn't know the extent of the damage until I went in that direction [Wednesday]," said Carolyn Stinson, 59. "It was scary. … I got about halfway down and saw that the water was totally in flood and trees were down."
The small span had vanished beneath several feet of murky, brown water. It was the first time in 20 years living on that road she had seen anything like it.
Fidler said it was "way too early" to estimate the cost of replacing or repairing the spans, or how long it will take.
Others on the county's flood list include Offutt Road and Village Green Drive, over Mardella Branch, near Granite; Eagle Mill and Bentley, over the Gunpowder Falls in Bentley Springs; Sparks and York Roads, over Piney Creek; 800 block of Western Run Road, over Western Run; Harford Road, at the county line near Fork.
Baltimore Sun reporters Jonathan Pitts, Steve Kilar, Timothy B. Wheeler, Candus Thomson and Liz F. Kay contributed to this report.