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Some Ellicott City flood victims face cleanup alone

Damage 'worse than Agnes' in historic district's residential west end

By Kevin Rector, krector@tribune.com

7:01 PM EDT, September 13, 2011

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When the water rushed into town, it was quick and powerful, inundating basements in minutes and smashing through fences and doors.

When it rushed out, it left residents with an arduous recovery on their hands, and an uneasy sense of vulnerability.

Almost a week after a flash flood hit historic Ellicott City on Wednesday, Sept. 7, the destruction it caused was still evident — especially along the quarter-mile "west end" residential stretch of Frederick Road, which is up the hill from Main Street, away from the popular bars and shops.

West end residents said they don't have the resources to rent dumpsters like businesses down the hill. And Howard County, they said, has done nothing to help them remove the mounds of destroyed belongings from their backyards, sidewalks and stoops.

"This is a disaster," said Frank Durantaye, who has lived on the historic strip for 22 years. "The county's got to respond and come over and see what they can do."

County fire and rescue teams evacuated the street's residents during the height of the flooding, and did a commendable job, some neighbors said. And the county also dropped off three pages of information on FEMA resources, local trash collections, landfill drop offs and Waste Management Inc.'s provision of one free "bagster," which the company calls a "dumpster in a bag," to each household.

Each green, canvas-like bag is 8 feet long by 4 feet wide by 2.5 feet deep and can hold up to 3 cubic yards, or 3,300 pounds, of debris, according to the company's Web site.

But those numbers are more impressive than the actual bags, which were filled within hours of the water receding, residents said.

They called for more, with no luck. They called for the filled ones to be taken away, and were told pick-up won't be until Friday, Sept. 16.

"It would have been a lot better if they had put a dumpster (at) every few telephone poles," said Darlean Carter, 56, who has lived on the street her entire life and said last week's flooding hit the west end harder than any storm in her lifetime.

"It was worse than Agnes," she said, referring to the historic 1972 hurricane that flooded much of the lower part of town with almost 15 feet of water.

Basements flooded, cars tossed

The flash flooding was caused by the last swirls of Tropical Storm Lee, which helped drop an estimated 10 inches of rainfall on the area between Sept. 5 and Sept. 9, according to the National Weather Service.

The worst of the flooding in Ellicott City came along the stream that flows east through the west end to join the Tiber River as it flows under downtown shops.

The stream backed up and roared out of the channel meant to contain it, rushing in waves into homes and hurling debris everywhere.

The torrent caused extensive damage as it flooded Main Street with knee-deep water. Shop owners reported five feet of water in their basements. Dumpsters floated. Cars were tossed. The Tiber swelled as it met the Patapsco River, reaching to the bottom of the historic high-water marker at the B&O Railroad Museum, though well below Agnes's record.

The basement apartment of Kelly Zimmerman and Scott O'Toole, along the stream bed, was completely submerged in water and destroyed. By Tuesday, friends had managed to raise more than $6,000 in donations for the couple, who plan to stay in the town.

A large stone wall on Mulligans Hill Lane collapsed, crushing six cars. The cars have since been removed, and a large mound of rocks is in place to support the hill above.

Roads throughout the county, including Route 29 South, were closed due to flooding.

Kevin Enright, a spokesman for County Executive Ken Ulman, said a total damage estimate is not available because the county has no way to record claims that people make to their private insurance companies.

But residents put their personal losses in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Long-term plan, short-term needs

While the flooding was surprising, it was not unprecedented. Various areas of the county are prone to flooding, and the county received federal funding in 2008 to create a Flood Mitigation Plan (FMP), which was just adopted by the County Council on Aug. 1.

According to Angela Morales, environmental planner with the Department of Public Works, the plan is updated every six months and looks at ways to prevent flooding in the county. Its creation also helped make county residents eligible for a 10 percent discount on flood insurance by improving the county's federal preparedness rating to an 8 out of 10, she said.

The plan addresses a variety of factors — like development control, storm water management and dumping regulations — that residents said they are concerned about. During each six-month phase, the county will seek to address concerns raised in the plan, Morales said.

Residents in Ellicott City's west end said improvements are definitely needed.

"That stream has not been cleaned out since probably 1999," Carter said. "They keep building and building and building, and there's nowhere for this water to go."

Right now, though, they just want the junk that's been on the street for days cleared.

"It stinks," said resident Kathy Wine. "Cars are going up and down the road. Dust is blowing. I'm sure it's unhealthy to be breathing in that stuff."

"It's just a basic response to a disaster in a county," Durantaye said.

Enright said the county worked quickly to determine trash collection and landfill exceptions for flood victims, and then distribute handouts with that information to businesses and residents. The time frame for distribution and pickup of the bagsters was based on the thought that some people will need more time to fill the bags, he said.

Crews from various county agencies have been working since the flooding to help residents with flood-related needs, including tree removals and assessments of structural damage on private properties — things the county isn't generally responsible for, Enright said.

"We certainly sympathize with the areas that were hardest hit, and we're farther away from the storm that we now have some of the resources that we may not have had day one or day two," he said.

"If there are things that we've missed that we could help out with, if you contact us, there's a chance that we can come out."

Community vs. county

On Monday, Durantaye's neighbors Colin and Michele Bickley were still airing out the basement of their newly renovated 1891 home. Colin was repairing a fence in the backyard, and Michele was drying old yearbooks and journals on their porch.

The couple and their two-year-old daughter Kianna just moved into the house two weeks ago, from Los Angeles, in part to "settle down and have a slower lifestyle," said Michele, who is eight-months pregnant with a son.

Their Realtor, title company, insurance provider and the home's previous owner all said there was no need for them to get flood insurance, despite the stream at the far edge of the backyard.

A week later the water came, filling their basement and submerging countless boxes of unpacked photo albums, clothes and electronics. It almost carried the family jeep downstream. And it left a swirling, 10-foot sinkhole in the backyard, which they've since filled with $500 worth of dirt.

"I pulled my wedding dress out of mud," Bickley said.

The family had to be rescued from their home by a swift-water team.

Since then, the outpouring of support from the community has been amazing, they said.

One new neighbor brought over a dinner of homemade ribs. Friends lent vehicles, strangers provided manpower. Everyone pitched in — except the county, they said.

Other than the rescue team, which they greatly appreciate, the county hasn't provided any support, the couple said. They were even turned away at the landfill because their cars still have California tags.

"The response is night and day," said Michele Bickley, comparing the kindness of her new neighbors to the lack of county support. "It's polar opposites. It's kind of disgusting.

"It just feels like you're kind of isolated and on your own," she said. "I'm not trying to be a victim at all, and I don't want to be. But it's not right."

Enright said the county's Office of Emergency Management was the first county office in the state to request a FEMA assessment of the flooded areas, and that FEMA officials will be in Ellicott City completing those assessments on Thursday, Sept. 15.

He said the damage reports will help determine whether Howard County is eligible for disaster assistance programs.

Residents can submit reports of damage to their homes or businesses, excluding basement damage, to damagereports@howardcountymd.gov.