'Wanna go on the clock?': In Ellicott City, reporting on a disaster in my own backyard

I would love to say that when the flood hit Ellicott City on May 27, I was ready. I would love to say I was watching the storm like a diligent reporter, one eye on weather reports and the other on Main Street, ready to spring into action.

Honestly? I was singing in the shower. I didn’t have a clue.

Like many of my neighbors, I knew it was coming. I’d been through this before, in 2016, before I was hired by the Baltimore Sun Media Group. I knew how fast the water comes when the rain hits, how high it can rise. I knew my home, perched on a hill overlooking downtown Ellicott City, would most likely be just outside the flood plain — but that for those on lower ground, another flood could be deadly.

But that didn’t make it less of a shock when my partner came downstairs and said: “It’s happening again.”

As I ran to the kitchen window, firing off a Tweet while gasping words not fit for print, a message came in on my phone from one of my editors.

“Are you in Ellicott City?” he asked me. “Wanna go on the clock?” I looked out the window at the raging brown water, already a few feet high, tossing cars around like toys.

“Not sure I have a choice,” I replied.

Journalism is usually centered around objectivity and distance. But disasters don’t care much about convention. I was there, right in the middle of it. I had the skills to gather information, and The Baltimore Sun could help me spread it.

So I stuck my phone in a Ziploc bag, threw on some rain boots and ran out the door to cover a tragedy happening in real time in my own backyard.

At first, I was more traffic cop than journalist. Car after car tried to drive downhill as I waved like a maniac, yelling at them to stop, to turn around. One of the people who died in 2016, Joseph Blevins, was in a car when he was swept into the Patapsco River. I wanted to do anything I could to keep drivers away.

From there, I went into adrenaline-fueled autopilot. I took videos of the raging water, barely registering what my camera was capturing. I interviewed my own neighbors. I ran up and down the hill to try to see who was trapped and where. I poured what seemed like a quart of water out of my rain boots — twice. I posted Tweet after Tweet.

Here’s something I didn’t know about reporting on a disaster: Twitter gets very weird.

Other news networks started sending messages asking for permission to use my videos, somehow expecting me to read and agree to legalese while cars floated by. Bots proliferated, jamming up my feed with their software-generated nonsense. A few hours after the flood began, while water still trickled down Main Street, someone messaged me to ask that I check out a local politician’s Twitter.

Twitter was absurd, but it was reporting on my own town washing away that was truly surreal.

I thought about the weightlifting classes I used to take as I watched gym MissFIT’s hot pink sign float toward the Patapsco River with its entire first floor, a mangle of wood.

I watched water roar over the spot where, on sunny days, I would chat with Barry “the Bubbleman” Gibson, who always spent weekends outside his shop, the Forget-Me-Not Factory, blowing bubbles in a glittering costume.

I thought about all the slow, sunny walks I took up and down Main Street, window shopping and people watching. I wondered if I would ever be able to take that walk again.

The flood took homes and livelihoods, and it left questions. Why did people stay in 2016, and should they stay this time? Did the government do enough to keep the town safe? How can we honor Eddison Hermond’s life? How can we prevent it from happening again?

I don’t know those answers. What I do know is that I’ll be right there, as a journalist and as a person, grappling with questions and picking up the pieces.

asolomon@baltsun.com

twitter.com/libsolomon

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