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Isabel leaves a wet mess

Weather ReportsBaltimore WeatherWeather WarningsFloods and Flooding

Marylanders spent Friday straining to recover from Hurricane Isabel, which flooded Baltimore's waterfront, drove hundreds into shelters and knocked out power for more than 1 million residents even as surging waters continued to threaten the western part of the state.

Record flooding in Baltimore's historic Fells Point and popular Inner Harbor had residents canoeing through city streets and wading to work in shorts. Downtown Annapolis and eastern Baltimore County, among other areas, also were left under several feet of water Friday morning.

"I would hope that this is the end of the flooding," Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said Friday.

Hours earlier, he was monitoring the flooding. "The water is a beautiful thing, an asset. But sometimes, it turns on you."

Repair crews worked overtime Friday to restore electricity to the more than 1.27 million households that lost power in the state -- the worst outage Maryland has ever seen, officials from the state's two major utilities said.

The damage was particularly striking considering many officials and forecasters said Isabel had spared Maryland its worst as it lost strength Thursday and passed to the north and west.

Still, the storm was believed to have claimed a second victim in Maryland Friday after Baltimore County police found the body of a white male floating in flood water covering the 8200 block of Peach Orchard Road in Turner Station. The man, believed to be in his 40s, had not been identified. There was no sign of foul play, said Bill Toohey, a police spokesman. A cause of death has not yet been determined.

A motorist was killed during the storm Thursday when his vehicle crashed into a telephone pole in Anne Arundel County.

Late Friday afternoon, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced that the Bush administration had approved his request for federal disaster relief for the state. Estimates of the storm's damage were still being tallied, but Ehrlich said that state overtime costs had exceeded $20 million and that damage to state roads had been put at $3.2 million.

Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele will be crisscrossing the state this weekend to assess damage. "It's been a tough day in Maryland, and it'll be a tough day tomorrow," Ehrlich said at a midday stop in Middle River, in hard-hit eastern Baltimore County. "But it could've been much worse."

That was the overwhelming sentiment of many across the state, where after a week's worth of dire warnings, many communities were left feeling that things could have been uglier.

Isabel dumped up to 9 inches of rain in parts of Virginia, but rainfall in most of Central Maryland was not much more than 3 inches. And although gusts of about 60 mph were recorded at some spots, the storm had lost much of its hurricane force by the time it swept through Thursday night and Friday morning.

So moderate was the rainfall in many areas that many residents were left slightly puzzled at the severe flooding that occurred. The explanation, meteorologists said Friday, lies in two factors: the storm's sustained winds and its timing.

It was the bad luck of areas such as the Baltimore and Annapolis waterfronts that the storm surges caused by Isabel's winds and rains came right around high tide, meteorologists said. And although the winds may not have been hurricane- strength, they were sustained enough for 12 hours to keep pushing water up the Chesapeake Bay and its feeders, even as the tides started to recede, they said.

"This was caused by wind stress on the water, roiling water up the bay, helping to create these surges," said Todd Miner, a meteorologist with the Penn State Weather Communications Group. "When you have wind going all in one direction, it's going to pile the water up."

That is what residents and business owners discovered Friday morning when they woke to find much of Fells Point and the Inner Harbor under water. Baltimore Harbor rose 7 feet above normal tides Friday morning, eclipsing the record set by the great hurricane of August 1933.

About midnight Thursday, it seemed as though the harbor would escape relatively unscathed. But by high tide, just before 2 a.m., water was surging past the seawalls and into Fells Point and downtown streets, businesses, basements and hotel rooms.

A rescue squad arrived on Fells Street in response to a report of people stranded at the Henderson's Wharf marina. Eight rescuers set off toward the marina, banging poles on the flooded streets to make sure manhole covers were in place. As it turned out, the stranded people didn't want to be rescued: they stayed out to watch their boats.

By daybreak, major roads, including Pratt and Light streets, were submerged under as much as 5 feet of water and were closed most of the day.

The rush of water downtown caused electrical problems at police headquarters on Fayette Street, forcing the city to shift its 911 operations to a backup call center. Despite of the switch, O'Malley said, service was not interrupted.

Elsewhere downtown, low-lying roads became churning rivers that swept away much in their path -- from garbage bins to automobiles. The bizarre scene led to a festival-like atmosphere, drawing hundreds of onlookers who snapped pictures and tossed balls into the water for dogs to retrieve. Others set out in canoes and kayaks.

"It's like the harbor just came up and right on through here," said Pete Mahlsteadt, 58, standing with his wife, Ruth, at the corner of Light and Lee streets downtown, where the water was several feet deep Friday morning. "Usually we walk over to Starbucks for coffee. Today we'd have to swim."

For many, though, the scene was less enjoyable. Harry Hurst found his family's store, Meyer Seed Co. on Caroline Street, under 18 inches of water, with a lot of seed ruined. Water was 4 feet deep in his warehouse, said Hurst, whose family has owned the store for 50 years.

Water lapped 3 feet up at the walls of the police substation at the Inner Harbor, and the promenade around the harbor was under 4 feet of water. Boaters scrambled to take off before yesterday afternoon's high tide.

A similar scene played out around Annapolis' City Dock, where kayakers paddled up Main Street. Water was several feet deep in businesses in the historic Market House on Dock Street, and the McNasby Oyster Co. building, which houses the Annapolis Maritime Museum, was so damaged that it might have to condemned, said Mayor Ellen O. Moyer.

About 300 city residents had to be evacuated from their homes, Moyer said.

"No one really expected it to be this bad," said Jack Rainey, the manager of Comfort One Shoes, which was under water several inches deep.

Also caught with rapidly rising water Friday night were parts of eastern Baltimore County. As of 4 p.m. Friday, workers had rescued 74 people from Millers Island, 52 from Bowleys Quarters and 45 from Turner Station, said a county Fire Department spokeswoman.

To evacuate the 400 homes, police and rescue crews set up a relay, with inflatable boats taking people to patrol cars, which then took residents to waiting buses, said Baltimore County Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan. At one point, the amphibious Duck bus-boats -- popular among Inner Harbor tourists -- were enlisted to help, Sheridan said.

The surging waters took many in the eastern part of the county by surprise. Friday, residents found themselves at makeshift shelters across the region, still sorting out the events of the previous night.

"At 2 a.m., I went to bed," said Rodney Cole, 31, of Peach Orchard Lane, who was with his girlfriend at the shelter set up at Eastern Technical High School in Essex. "The power went on. I thought everything was fine." But when he woke up, his couch was floating across the floor.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. toured flood- wrecked eastern Baltimore County by helicopter late Friday. "There's gas and oil everywhere, but the water has receded a lot," Smith said. "The situation is pretty bleak, and there's a lot of cleanup that has to be done."

Also in Baltimore County, crews were working to get nine pumping stations back up and running.

In Howard County, three adults and two young children were discovered semiconscious in a Mount Airy house where a generator had been used indoors after the family lost power. All five were treated at area hospitals for carbon monoxide poisoning, fire officials said.

The greatest question mark remained in Western Maryland and just across the West Virginia border, where emergency officials were braced for possible flooding through the weekend as water surged up the Potomac and other rivers. But they remained cautiously optimistic after receiving less rain than expected.

In Jefferson County, W.Va., emergency services personnel went door to door Friday night warning residents of possible significant flooding Saturday in historic Harpers Ferry and low-lying areas of Shepherdstown, the state's oldest municipality.

In the Harpers Ferry-Millville area, the Shenandoah River is forecast by the National Weather Service to rise above 20 feet, about 7 feet higher than flood level. The Potomac is expected to rise more than 3 feet above its flood stage of 18 feet.

The weather service also warned of possible flooding at Point of Rocks in rural Frederick County.

But farther west in Cumberland, where forecasters had predicted as much as 10 inches of rain, city officials were wondering if they had lucked out.

"I don't think we had 2 inches in the city," said a relieved Jeffrey Repp, Cumberland city administrator. "We didn't have any problems."

For the thousands of residents living far from rivers and the Chesapeake, the storm's damage came in the form of toppled trees and lost power. As of 9 p.m. Friday, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., Potomac Electric Power Co. and smaller utilities reported that 1.04 million homes were without power, down from 1.27 million earlier in the day.

Among the most affected areas was Anne Arundel County, where 174,000 households and businesses were without power Friday. Also, three sewage pumping stations remained off- line Friday afternoon -- Patuxent, Maryland City and Bay Hills -- spilling unknown amounts of raw sewage into nearby waterways.

Officials said the county's public drinking water supply was safe, and they were making plans to distribute water to people whose wells were useless without electricity.

"Conserve water, and don't flush," said County Executive Janet S. Owens.

On the Eastern Shore, record-breaking tides in Chesapeake forced dozens of evacuations and left 50 percent of Dorchester County under water.

Somerset County housed nearly 700 people in temporary shelters, while across the peninsula, Ocean City weathered the rough Atlantic surf but suffered little long-term damage.

In Somerset's Crisfield, water from Tangier Sound surged more than a mile past the Depot, the city's public dock, and flooded homes and businesses along the way. Maryland National Guard trucks were called to take nurses and other medical workers to Edward McCready Memorial Hospital, which was surrounded by the rising Little Annemessex River.

Dorchester County sheriff's deputies worked desperately Friday to evacuate dozens of residents of low-lying communities such as Toddville and Hooper's Island before another high tide occurred. An airboat from the nearby Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge was used to rescue several families, officials said.

On Hooper's Island -- where 70 years ago last month the record-setting hurricane carved a channel -- residents said that three crab-picking houses had been demolished and that a church was washed off its foundation.

In many rural Dorchester communities, located on narrow peninsulas with two-lane roads providing the only access, water rescues were the only option as flooding continued at midday Friday.

"I've been a cop here for 26 years, and I really think that if we get through the night without anybody drowned, we'll be lucky," Dorchester Sheriff James W. Phillips Jr. said.

By Friday night, though, life in many parts of the state was starting to return to normal.

The streets were dry again in downtown Baltimore. A baseball game was under way at Camden Yards. The hometown tour of the hit Broadway play Hairspray went on as scheduled at the Mechanic Theatre.

At Pasadena Caterers on Fort Smallwood Road in Anne Arundel, caterer Gary Courtney pressed ahead with orders for a Friday night wedding -- even though his business had no power and his marquee sign had fallen into the parking lot.

One of Courtney's workers was an hour late because he had to detour around the closed Key Bridge; another called in late because of water in her basement. Still, Courtney vowed that the wedding party would have chicken Marsala and beef burgundy, no matter what.

"I'm going to do everything in my power to make it look as though nothing ever happened," Courtney said. "I'll know what we did, but the bride won't."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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