Four days after Port Deposit was evacuated because of a flooding Susquehanna River, public officials on Sunday began letting some residents move back into their homes but delayed the return for others whose properties suffered the most damage.
By Sunday evening, about two-thirds of the town's population of 800 had been cleared for re-entry, according to state Sen. Nancy Jacobs. She said officials hoped to clear the rest to move by Tuesday. Residents of the south side of town, which generally received less damage than the north side, were the first to be approved for re-entry.
Inspectors spent much of Sunday assessing water-damaged homes and businesses to determine whether they were safe. Officials said they were ahead of schedule in allowing people to return, largely because the weather improved and because public officials, inspectors and representatives for utility companies cooperated to certify whether properties were safe to occupy.
"We didn't think any people would be able to have access to their homes until Wednesday, but this has gone so well that some of them will be in their homes today," said Richard Brooks, director of emergency services for Cecil County.
Officials had no estimates for the total dollar amount of property damage from the flooding.
Residents received yellow wrist bands if they were permitted to return, and the first were let back starting about 3 p.m. The wrist bands, which simply said "OVER 21,"came from a George Jones concert that was supposed to take place Saturday but had to be postponed.
Others waited outdoors on Main Street to meet with inspectors. Some passed the time by showing each other cell phone photos of property damage.
Jacobs, a Republican who represents Harford and Cecil counties, worked closely with residents anxious to return to their homes, including several from the Tome's Landing condominiums who had left pets behind since Thursday. Jacobs met with inspectors to make sure that development was one of the first areas that could be reoccupied.
Port Deposit and Havre de Grace were two of the Maryland towns that suffered the most damage following the heavy rains and flooding caused last week by the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee. Damage included wet basements, loss of power and debris. The Susquehanna River peaked Friday at 32.4 feet — its third-highest level recorded since the Conowingo Dam was built. About 400 residents of low-lying areas of Havre de Grace were also evacuated but were allowed to return to their homes.
To be eligible for re-entry in Port Deposit, homes had to be certified functional in terms of electrical power, water service and wastewater, Brooks explained. All residents are advised to boil water before drinking it, he added.
As part of their assessment, inspectors marked front doors as 'Approved' or 'Danger,' meaning they were unsafe to reoccupy. In some cases, inspectors could see water in backyards or smell oil that had mixed with floodwaters. In other cases, they had to go inside buildings to determine their condition, and that required meeting with owners.
Some residents on the north side of town, such as Annuska Bonds and Mary Quinn, said they had as much as nine feet of water in their homes. Others with homes on higher ground said they had little or no water damage but lost electrical service.
Alhough Port Deposit had a mandatory evacuation, some residents refused to leave their properties, Others were allowed to go in briefly with police escorts.
Main Street resident Mark Mills said he returned to his house Sunday with his daughter Amanda to retrieve his dog and cat and to get food out of the refrigerator. He said he was escorted by the town's chief of police, Joe Swam, and was staying at the Perryville Ramada Inn until his house was safe to reoccupy.
Carol and Donald Spelman said they have a primary residence in Peach Bottom, Pa., but own a rental property on the north side of Port Deposit. They were hoping to be let in to see it as of late Sunday. "I feel so sorry for these people," Carol Spelman said of those with extensive water damage and nowhere else to go. "We're lucky we have our home to live in."
Some charitable efforts began in response to the flooding. One resident, Pam Liedlich, put out a call on her Facebook page for donations of clothing, furniture and other items to help people who suffered losses. As of Sunday afternoon, she said, she had offers of more than half a dozen sofas.
Many of the town's residents congregated at C M Tugs, a Main Street pub that stayed open throughout the evacuation and offered free food and beverages to property owners and emergency workers. Football fans gathered inside on Sunday afternoon to watch the Ravens-Steelers game on DirecTV.
Owner Gayle Wysock, who lives above the pub, said she never lost power and decided to share her good fortune. She said several other residents and businesses, including Susky River Grille and Capello Confections, donated some of the food, including breads and desserts.
"Even though I had electricity, it wouldn't have been right for me to make a profit," Wysock said of her decision to offer free food. "This is a time for the town to be brought together, not separated."
Wysock, who was running the pub with her son and one employee, added that watching the football game was a good way for residents to unwind after what they've been through.
"If there is ever any doubt that this town will survive, go inside and listen to them root for the Ravens," she said.
Erica L. Green contributed to this story.