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."
But Irvine also said with or without the floodgates opening, parts of Laurel would have flooded because of the sheer volume of rain that week.
"The opening sped the pace of the flooding, but there was going to be a certain amount of flooding in Laurel," he said.
Irvine also noted that WSSC's dams are not operated as flood control dams but for storing fresh water for the commission's 1.8 million customers, making keeping a supply of water on hand a top priority.
"I'm not sure what more could've been done," he said of the water company's reaction to the situation.
Some in Laurel agree.
"I think WSSC did all they could do this time," said Richard Kluckhuhn, president of Laurel Fuel Oil, which backs up to the Patuxent. "The rain we had was unprecedented. … They had to dump the water."
Laurel Fuel Oil suffered devastating losses back in 1972, when water from Tropical Storm Agnes swamped the company's parking lot and office buildings, and Kluckhuhn slammed the WSSC, which opened the floodgates then as well, for causing that flooding.
Since then, Kluckhuhn's business has avoided serious flooding, thanks in part to the high dikes built to protect his property. The April 30 deluge had only minor effects on his business.
"I know there's been a lot of discussion about WSSC flooding us," Kluckhuhn said. "But like it's been explained to me since 1971, this dam was not designed for flood control it was designed for freshwater storage."
For others, that explanation is not enough.
"They have people who should have known how to handle something like this," complained Bill Polizos, vice president of Progressive Rent-a-Car, a small car rental business next door to Frederick's auto body shop. "We had 5 inches of rain forecast, and they couldn't anticipate this? That's just total negligence by WSSC."
Polizos said he lost eight cars in the raging waters, which also flooded his warehouse and office.
"It's never been remotely this bad before," he said. "I was here, and I was up to my waist in water."
A month after the flood, Polizos said he is still dealing with silt and mold.
"We're a mom-and-pop business," he said. "We take a hit like this and it's really hard."
Oversight, compensation sought
Moe said his main interest is preventing dam-related flooding in the future. To that end, city officials are working on a number of fronts.
They have met with WSSC officials to discuss such issues as better notification (they would like to see top city officials notified, not just staff workers) and oversight of the commission's control of the dam, among other things.
"If we can continue to talk and have a dialogue, I think we can improve on this and stop the damage," Moe said.
He also said he hopes to have a public meeting, with WSSC officials in attendance, to air and address the community's concerns.
Flemion, Laurel's director of emergency operations, estimated the April 30 flood will cost the city and Laurel businesses as much as $1 million.
He said the city is searching for help to pay for the damage — and for ways to avoid a repeat in the future.
City officlals have met with aides to U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-5th, to discuss possible policy changes that might make WSSC more responsive to flooding issues, as well as compensation possibilities for the damage caused by the April 30 flood.
"What we are looking for is some level of oversight or some level of responsibility on the part of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission," Flemion said. "Something that would provide those of us downstream from the dam some protection should a similar event occur.
"Whether that's WSSC's being responsible for assisting with the cost of repairs … or having the state placed in control of the operations of that dam, I don't know," he said.
Flemion conceded that if it hadn't been for the emergency, "we probably would have marked this down as a non-event."
He also conceded that WSSC has been more mindful of preventing flooding downstream since it came under fire following the devastation of Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, and that WSSC keeping a supply of water is paramount.
But he added: "There are those of the opinion that the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission should have dewatered the dam [released some of the water] to the point where even if that emergency occurred it wouldn't have resulted in that amount of runoff."
Asked about the possibility of state oversight of its dams, Irvine would only say: "The folks in our control room are the experts. They've been doing this for a number of years."
Irvine did say that WSSC officials "absolutely" would welcome a public meeting in Laurel to explain their policies and actions.
'A serious matter'
If that meeting comes to pass, the community member at the front of the line to speak just might be Frederick. The long-time Laurel businessman is still fuming about what he is convinced was WSSC's failure to prevent the flooding.
"They know what all that rain will do to the dams, but they ignore it," said Frederick. "They don't think they have any responsibility — and they wouldn't if it was result of a normal flood, but they create the flood. … They open the gates instead of filling the channel up when they know the water is coming, to make room for it."
Frederick said last week he is meeting with an attorney to discuss legal action against the commission.
"They should be held accountable," he said. "And I intend to do that. This is a serious matter. … In my opinion, what they did was criminal. If I caused the damage they did, I'd be in jail for 40 years."
Floods in Laurel
With its low-lying areas, the Patuxent River on its northern border and the Duckett Dam nearby, floods are nothing new to Laurel. Since the storied Tropical Storm Agnes-related flooding of 1972, the Patuxent has overflowed its banks 12 or 13 times, according to Marty Flemion, Laurel's deputy city administrator and director of emergency operations.
Three of the most devastating floods — including the Agnes-related one — were caused at least in part by WSSC's opening the floodgates to the Duckett Dam.
• June 1972: A hurricane when it swept through the South, Agnes was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit Maryland. But it still packed plenty of punch, soaking the area with 10 to 14 inches of rain.
When dam operators opened the floodgates, water rushed through an already saturated Laurel. Major roadways were shut down and bridges washed away. Several businesses suffered catastrophic losses, and some 1,000 city residents had to be evacuated. Damages were in the millions of dollars.
The flooding prompted WSSC to change how it deals with rising water levels and its emergency notification system. The city and some of its businesses also made changes aimed at averting the damage from future floods.
• January 2013: Heavy rains again prompted WSSC to open its floodgates, and once again Laurel was flooded. Hundreds of homes and apartments were evacuated and a homeless woman was found floating in the water dead in nearby Anne Arundel County near Laurel-Fort Meade and Racetrack roads, where police were clearing out a homeless encampment threatened by the floods.
• April 2014: A half-foot of heavy rain saturated the area and filled the reservoir behind the Duckett Dam, prompting worried WSSC officials to open all of the floodgates. At least three businesses near the Patuxent River — Fred Frederick Chrysler Jeep, Dodge; Aamco Transmission; and Progressive Rent-a-Car — suffered major losses, hundreds of families were evacuated from their homes, several roads were temporarily shut down and the city's Riverfront Park was left in ruins.