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MD town reviews response

Officials look back on Hurricane Ivan.

BY HEATHER MOYER | PORT DEPOSIT, Md. | November 23, 2004

Port Deposit Mayor Rob Flayhart said after the remnants of Hurricane Ivan drenched the region, he heard residents say that it was one of the most organized floods the town had ever experienced.

Speaking at a public meeting held by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) Monday evening, Flayhart joined other state and local officials - along with representatives from the dams along the Susquehanna River Basin - in reviewing the impact Ivan had on Maryland.

While the Port Deposit area did not receive excessive rainfall from Ivan, areas upstream along the Susquehanna did. Many areas in central Pennsylvania received upwards of eight and nine inches of water, leaving tiny Port Deposit and many other small riverside towns nervously watching the rising river.

Port Deposit kept a watchful eye on the Conowingo Dam, which is several miles upstream. While the meeting's attendees laughed at Flayhart's comments about the organized flood, the statement is very true. Due to the excessive upstream rainfall, the Conowingo Dam had to open floodgates in order to relieve pressure. Officials from the dam, Cecil County Emergency Management, and the city of Port Deposit all worked very closely on notifying each other of water levels.

That in turn helped Flayhart and Port Deposit residents prepare. While the lower end of town still suffered close to $1 million in damage, many of Monday evening's speakers agreed it could have been much worse without that communication and coordination. "We give residents the early warnings, that's the best protection we have," noted Flayhart.

The system of notification used by the county, the cities along the Susquehanna, and the dam is one that was greatly improved after the ice floods in the winter of 1996. That ice flood was one of the worst in the history of the river. Don Baldwin, senior engineer for Susquehanna Electric Company - which operates the Conowingo Dam - said employees at the dam use advanced forecasting and modeling to determine flow levels. Those methods have improved the flood forecasting for areas downstream immensely since 1996.

"In '96, we only were able to give 25-minute advance warnings," explained Baldwin. "By watching the water gauges upstream now, we can give 24-hour advance warnings for downstream."

Baldwin said the preparation for Hurricane Ivan actually began 10 days before its remnants hit the area because of all the previous hurricanes. Since Bonnie, Charley, and Frances all had an impact on the 27,500 square-mile Susquehanna River basin, the ground across the region was thoroughly saturated. That saturation meant different flow levels for the river.

During his speech, Baldwin gave the audience an hour-by-hour description of how dam officials coordinated with meteorologists, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), officials from the dams upstream from Conowingo, city officials from downstream, and many other agencies.

Andre Dehoff, water resources engineer for SRBC, noted that across the entire Susquehanna River basin - which spans from southern New York through central Pennsylvania and into northeastern Maryland - Ivan's heavy rains and flooding did an estimated $200-300 million in damage.

He agreed that better forecasting and planning for this flood helped prepare the affected downstream areas, but this flood - once final damage tallies are received for the entire basin - most likely will rank as the third, fourth, or fifth worst flood in the Susquehanna River's recorded history.

Dehoff also noted Baldwin's point about the previous several storms' impact on the region. "What's important to remember is while that much rain would probably cause flooding anyway, this came on the heels of Bonnie, Charley, and Frances. The ground was saturated."

Another topic for the night's meeting was river debris management. The SRBC runs a streamside cleanup program that encourages and trains communities to keep the waterways of the Susquehanna River Basin clean.

"Debris aggravates flooding by blocking channels meant to help control floods," said Susan Obleski, SRBC's director of communications. "The health risk is there in debris as well."

Workers at the Conowingo Dam know the consequences of river debris. After Ivan's flooding, one of the turbines was damaged by fast-flowing debris. Another speaker, Safe Harbor Water Power Corporation CEO Marshall Kaiser, showed photos of the debris hitting the Safe Harbor Dam during the floods. He also showed photos of the remaining debris around the dam once the waters had receded - which included an old refrigerator, tires, and more.

Obleski added that illegal dumping is the greatest source of trash in the river, pointing to photos of river banks covered in dumped appliances, tires, and general trash. Since 1991, cleanup volunteers have removed more than 1,014 tons of trash from the river basin.

"We are training local citizens to be the eyes and ears of the community so illegal dumping doesn't happen. This is a really good program but it will need more participants and funding."

Overall, many of the panelists agreed that the flooding from Ivan downstream of the Conowingo Dam could have been worse. Yet they also agreed that continuing improvements in forecasting and communications need to be made.

"In the Susquehanna Basin, it's not a matter of 'if' but 'when' the next flood will occur. For that reason, it's good public policy to have open forums like this where people can learn the facts about flooding and have opportunities to share their concerns," said Maryland Delegate David Rudolph in a release. "On-going communication, coordination and cooperation are vital to our flood-prone communities in Cecil County."

Frank Muller, director of the Cecil County Office of Emergency Management, summed up his thoughts of the situation in one phrase. "We can't stop the water, but we can prepare for it - and this time was a good example of that."

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Related Links:

Susquehanna River Basin Commission

Susquehanna River Basin Flood Forecasting & Warning System

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