It's a mostly clear June day — not a rain cloud in the sky — but Fred Frederick has flooding on his mind. Specifically, the April 30 flood that left much of his Route 1 car dealership underwater.
"See that van?" he says, pointing to a vehicle uphill from his auto body shop, which sits just south of the Howard County line and the Patuxent River. "The water was up to there." He waves his hand. "This was all underwater."
The long-time Laurel businessman points to a row of cars, their inside windows soaked with condensation, that were ruined by high water.
"We moved 164 cars [to higher ground], but we couldn't move them all," he says. "Once you get water up into the electronics, that finishes them."
Frederick shakes his head. "I know we're in a flood plain, but if they would manage the dams right, we wouldn't have a problem."
"They" are the people who run the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which supplies water to Prince George's and Montgomery counties and which is under fire from many in Laurel for opening all seven floodgates of the T. Howard Duckett Dam April 30 following days of heavy rain.
The open gates unleashed tons of water that overflowed the banks of the Patuxent, devastating a handful of businesses and the city's Riverfront Park, and forcing emergency evacuations of hundreds of homes and apartments, including Selborne House, the senior apartment complex on Main Street.
In the aftermath, an array of business owners and elected officials — noting this is not the first time WSSC opening the dam has caused major flooding in Laurel (see list below) — are questioning how the WSSC handled the heavy rainstorm that filled the reservoir behind Duckett, and wondering if changes are needed.
"I try not to throw blame," Laurel Mayor Craig Moe said several weeks after the incident. "But there are still some questions unanswered. … I wonder about WSSC's mitigation plans. Can we release that water sooner? With all the technology at their disposal, you'd think they could avoid this."
While the city can't stop the flooding, it is taking steps to be better informed when flooding might occur.
The city has budgeted $40,000 to $65,000 in its fiscal year 2015 budget for a project to help monitor the water level in the Patuxent River. The project includes installing gauges that would alert Laurel police of possible flooding, starting a chain reaction that would result in residents being warned of possible evacuation.
Marty Flemion, Laurel's director of emergency operations, said the system should be in place by November.
"It might give us a little more advance notice that flooding is on its way," Flemion said.
Prince George's County Councilwoman Mary Lehman has written WSSC, asking for an explanation of their decisions the night of the most recent flood.
"I am asking whether there was adequate planning prior to opening the floodgates, and if this action was avoidable," she stated in a newsletter to constituents.
'Integrity of the dam'
WSSC officials say poor planning had nothing to do with the flood. They say it was caused by the huge amount of rain — some 5-6 inches — coupled with the last-minute discovery of a structural problem in the dam.
Public Affairs Manager Jerry Irvine said that, in fact, managers had started releasing water two or three days before April 30 and things were under control. But late that night, they noticed that water had started to breach one of the dam's joints and was flowing down the face of the dam, threatening one of the buttresses.
At that point, they decided to open all the floodgates.
"It had become an emergency situation," Irvine said. "We had to protect the integrity of the dam."