Fifty years ago, Hurricane Agnes devastated the Mid-Atlantic states, causing unprecedented death and damage. Dorchester County was not untouched by the storm, and the effects are still being felt on the Eastern Shore. But experts are using this anniversary to examine how far emergency preparedness has come and to make us ready for future events.
Agnes was born June 14, 1972, as a tropical disturbance over Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. It landed on the Florida panhandle as a Category One storm five days later and started up the East Coast. By the time it reached the middle states, it had been downgraded to a tropical depression. But stimulation by the temperature and density of the air led to Agnes being reclassified a tropical storm.
Winds over Dorchester County gusted as high as 55 mph in the early morning hours of Thursday, June 22. The force caused significant sagging in the metal overhang that bore the word “Hamburgers” on the roof of the Patio Drive-In restaurant on Sunburst Highway in Cambridge. Around 3:30 a.m., those northeast winds shifted to northwest, and it looked like Agnes was leaving the area. But then it did something highly unusual by coming back and lingering for a while. It hit Hooper’s Island “with a roar like a tornado,” and a man had to watch his boat get beaten to pieces in the water. The waves claimed several other craft, as well.
In Cambridge, the storm severely lashed the marina area of the yacht club and tore away the catwalks on the bulkhead side. Sailboats on land were overturned, and there were high tides causing ankle-deep water over all piers. Downed trees were also a great menace in Cambridge, damaging Ray Nicholas’ house and leaning against Fitzmaurice Hall on Mill Street as well as crushing the roof of a pickup truck on William Street.
At Linkwood, the dam went out, and water from Higgins Mill Pond forced sections of Drawbridge and DeCoursey roads to be closed. High tides flooded some highways and put part of Maple Dam Road underwater. A car traveling on Route 50 from Jacktown to Cambridge ran off the side of the road, hit the entrance road to a mobile home court, became airborne, made a 180-degree twist in the air, and landed in a pool of rainwater.
Fortunately, there were no major electrical problems. About 15 Delmarva Power & Light customers lost service in an area scattered from Church Creek to Brannock’s Neck and into Cambridge. Choptank Electrical Cooperative’s Golden Hill substation was knocked out of commission, but mainly lines were rendered inactive, and service was disrupted in the upper parts of Dorchester. C&P Telephone reported that their few problems were attributable to broken limbs tearing down wires.
Boats were shoved off their trailers, signs were swatted down, and awnings were shredded. Fields saturated by rain meant farmers would have to replant many crops. Generally speaking, however, Dorchester County got off easy. On the Eastern Shore tides were not greatly influenced, erosion was not serious, runoff conditions were minor, and land damage was minimal.
It was in the Chesapeake Bay that Agnes’ effect on the area proved disastrous, producing the severest conditions since North America’s European colonization. A great quantity of sediment from the swollen Susquehanna River choked the upper bay, which was hit with inflows of fresh water beyond previous recordings. Salinity decreased below the maintenance level for millions of estuarine aquatic lifeforms. Oyster beds faced high mortalities while crabs and softshell clams suffocated, and reproduction failed because the low salt content prevented spawning or killed the larva. The restoration and recovery of conditions for these creatures continue to this day.
In other parts of Maryland, there were states of emergency, with roads turned into lakes, forced evacuations, and people rescued from rooftops. Of the hurricanes that have passed through the state since 1950, Agnes was the deadliest, killing 21 people, and it inflicted damage to the tune of $80 million.
But nearby states suffered worse treatment. Torrential rains fueled flash floods, people were left homeless, and motorists were stranded on highways where vehicles were washed away. The military was deployed to help, but still 128 people died in total across eight states, and the damage was well over $2 billion.
As awful as the impact was, it would have been even more devastating but for the mitigation projects in place at the time. Since then, federal, state, and local governments have learned much and invested a great deal in reducing the possible harm of future natural menaces. Now, flood risk management teams of Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are collaborating with government partners on events to mark the 50th anniversary of Hurricane Agnes. Reflecting on personal accounts of the storm’s impact as well as information on how emergency response has evolved over half a century, people are discussing the ways in which we can all be better prepared.
Most of the land in Dorchester County is susceptible to hurricane flooding, but the last effect of Agnes on Cambridge was minor. On the Fourth of July 1972, the fireworks show was reduced to a 30-minute aerial presentation because the ground displays had been ruined in the flooding at the Pennsylvania manufacturing plant. The people of Cambridge could also have been celebrating how fortunate they were to weather Agnes with minimal damage.