The day before the Memorial Day weekend flood in Ellicott City, the National Weather Service predicted heavy rain could produce flooding on May 27 and issued a flood watch on television, radio and social media.
As rain pounded Main Street and the Tiber-Hudson watershed Sunday afternoon, the threat of flooding rose and the weather service issued a flood warning, meaning flooding is imminent or occurring, at 3:19 p.m. The first flood-related call to Howard County’s 911 emergency dispatch center was received at 3:55 p.m.
At 4:27 p.m. the weather service sent its first flash flood warning that popped up on cellphones, according to National Weather Service Warning Coordination Meteorologist Chris Strong. Two minutes earlier, water had reached a “minimal flooding” stream gauge at Rogers Avenue and Frederick Road, meaning water from a nearby stream channel was spilling onto the road, Strong said.
Some residents, however, say the Sunday alerts came too late. They were already surrounded by floodwaters.
Chris McIntyre, who lives at the bottom of Main Street, said water was already surging and there had been flooding for nearly a half hour, so much so that he had started a Facebook live video of the water.
Early videos, including some from the Baltimore Sun, show water rushing down Main Street at 4:25 p.m.
McIntyre said the waters rose from ankle level to what he believes was 11 feet high within a matter of minutes. By the time he realized how high the water was getting, he said it was too late to flee and he went to the third floor of his building.
“Had I gotten an alert, I would have left,” McIntyre said. “Whenever that alert went off we were already full-blown flood. I remember laughing, ‘we don’t know we’re underwater already?’”
Based on the gauge at Rogers Avenue and Frederick Road, major flooding, causing damage to buildings and the road of upper Main Street, happened at 5:45 p.m., according to Strong. The water reached its peak at the gauge at 5:55 p.m.
Flash-flood warning alerts were sent by the National Weather Service using its Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) to area cellphones at 4:27 p.m., 4:50 p.m., 5:07 p.m. and 5:47 p.m., according to Howard County spokesman Mark Miller.
Lee Biars lives at Bonnybridge Place, just off of Rogers Avenue and Frederick Road, and was driving home when he got hit by a wave of water in front of Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. on Main Street at 4:26 p.m. He said he abandoned his car and walked home through water that he said was already waist-deep. He said his car was totaled in the flood.
“More of a heads up would have been great, but I could clearly see that there was a flooding danger from where I was,” Biars said.
Strong said that the system worked correctly on May 27 to send out alerts to residents. After any major weather event that uses the system, he said National Weather Service and local officials review the system to determine possible improvements, a process that weeks following a flood in July 2016.
The county opts to use the National Weather Service IPAWS, rather than its own alert system, because it updates based on a user’s cellphone location so that a user receives accurate alerts for their current location, according to county spokesman Mark Miller.
The National Weather Service’s system software has been automatically included in cellphones since 2012. Users can opt out of the notifications manually in a phone’s settings, according to Strong. Officials do not have an estimate on how many phones in the Ellicott City area received the alert.
Some surrounding areas, including Montgomery County, are using a newer alert system from the weather service, “iNWS,” a subscription service geared towards emergency management and first responders that allows users to choose which kinds of alerts they want to receive, rather than only receiving flash flood and tornado warnings, the two events sent out via the regular cell phone system. Howard County officials are not currently considering using iNWS, instead opting to stick with the IPAWS system, according to county spokesman Paul Milton.
The week before the flood, Strong was among those at a county news conference unveiling plans for new gauges to be installed throughout the Ellicott City watershed, meant to better analyze water flow patterns.
County officials want to use that data to help inform them how to improve an alert system, Miller said. Any other possible localized systems haven’t been discussed, he said, as the county’s focus remains on recovery.
“One of the problems the weather service struggles with is this data gap,” Miller said. “So we need to get that data to determine what is the best route forward.”
Eventually, Strong said, the goal is to use data to help forecasters better predict when it will flood and how much, to buy residents more time ahead of a flood, if even just a few minutes.
The sensors, still on track to be installed this month, according to county officials, have the potential to be attached to an alert system so that if water reached a certain level, an area alert could be sent more quickly.
Such improvements however are likely years down the road, Strong said. And in an area that is as small and flood-prone as Ellicott City, he said there’s only so much that can be done to give residents more time before a flood.
“Even with that type of system, it should be understood that this is such a small basin, it’s never going to be like the Mississippi [River] where you have days and time to follow it,” Strong said. “Especially with thunderstorm situations where storms can form and pound down rain for an hour, it’s difficult to have a lot of lead time.”