Preventing floods and helping kids

March 05, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

In January of 1996, 43 inches of snow fell on the City of Hagerstown in less than a month. Snow was piled 15 feet high at some intersections and the city overspent its snow-removal budget by more than a quarter of a million dollars. And then things got worse.

On Jan. 16, the National Weather Service warned that because of melting snow and predicted rain, some flooding might occur along streams and rivers.

That was Wednesday. By Saturday, Jan. 20, the Potomac crested at 34 feet, 8 inches, well above the 23 feet that signifies flood stage. At that point a river-water intake valve at the city's R.C. Willson Water Plant that had failed to close the previous day suddenly became a problem.

The plant was flooded, causing $125,000 in damage and forcing city residents to boil their drinking and cooking water for 10 days, the first such ban in the city in 60 years.


Why that happened is a complicated story that was reported in great detail by The Herald-Mail's Julie Greene on Feb. 5, 1996.

But even though that was more than seven years ago, the memory lingers, and not in a good way. Last week a reader called to say that there's a lot of snow on the ground and warm weather ahead. His question: Could the same thing happen again?

No, said John Budesky, the city's director of administrative services.

Budesky said that since the problems in 1996, the city has developed an emergency plan for the plant, which involves working with the NWS.

When the Potomac River reaches certain levels, Budesky said, that's the signal for water plant employees to take certain precautions. Because the city's plant is in a valley along the river, Budesky said that the city has even prepared for the possibility that it might have to take employees in and out by boat.

Budesky also said that because the problems last time were caused by problems with a valve - which Greene's story says indicated it was closed when it wasn't - Budesky said the valves are "exercised" regularly.

"We do that to make sure they're working correctly and sealing properly," Budesky said.

But if the valves did fail, Budesky said the plant staff has put other measures in place to ensure that the river does not flood into the plant.

"In '96 we had some problems we had to deal with, but I believe we're at the top of our game now," Budesky said.

In a touching tribute to his late wife, developer Vincent Groh on Tuesday donated the former Henry's Theater on South Potomac Street for use as the Barbara Ingram Groh School for the Arts.

Groh, his daughter Katy and granddaughter Barbara stood at the podium at the Clarion Hotel as a crowd of hundreds of business and political leaders gave him a standing ovation of several minutes' duration.

The old theater, which stands in the middle city's Arts & Entertainment District, was once a movie theater specializing in family fare where I spent summer evenings when I first came to Hagerstown escaping from the heat.

Thanks to Groh's donation, the theater building will again be filled with youngsters seeking the benefits art education can provide.

And speaking of youngsters, one of the best developments in Hagerstown in recent years has been the creation of the Police Athletic League. PAL offers youth activities six days a week at its clubhouse in Fairgrounds Park.

Now PAL Director Brett McKoy, who began the group in 1997 with Gene McCartney, is trying hard to raise money, since grant money from the state may be hard to come by in the near future.

To do that, McKoy is bringing a team called the Harlem Ambassadors to North Hagerstown High School for a performance Monday, March 10, at 7 p.m.

Founded in 1998, the group's press package takes pains to point out that they are not affiliated with "that other Harlem team." Dale Moss, the group's president and general manager, even brags that their show is "younger, fresher, livelier and more fan-friendly."

In an interesting twist, the team features Lade Majic, described as a world-class comedienne and a world-class basketball player. One attraction of the show is apparently watching Majic take on the men of the all-star local teams recruited to play the Ambassadors.

I know firsthand the good work PAL does in teaching skills to youngsters and providing them with a positive outlet for their energy. Officer. McKoy is looking for people to attend the show, and to provide tickets for youngsters to attend.

Tickets are $5 for youngsters and $6 for adults. If you'd like to attend, please contact the PAL office at 301-797-2085, or send a check to PAL, c/o the Hagerstown Police Department, 50 N. Burhans Blvd., Hagerstown, MD, 21740.

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