By Alison Knezevich, Luke Lavoie and Melanie Dzwonchyk, Baltimore Sun Media Group
10:17 PM EST, January 31, 2013
A woman's body was found Thursday in rising waters near a homeless camp in Laurel, as flooding closed roads throughout the region and a dangerously high reservoir prompted the evacuation of Laurel's historic district.
The discovery of the body came as police in Laurel were going door to door to warn residents and business owners about likely flooding from a release of water at the T. Howard Duckett Dam by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. The commission also released water from Brighton Dam in Brookeville.
At least 12 roads were closed in Howard County, including Ellicott City's Main Street, because of high water or the dam release. Flooding triggered a large number of emergency calls in Montgomery County.
The release was needed, according to the WSSC, after overnight rainfall led to elevated levels in the Triadelphia and Rocky Gorge reservoirs. At its highest, the level of the Patuxent River was 10.5 feet as it entered Triadelphia Reservoir, more than four times its normal level.
Anne Arundel County police and fire personnel found the woman's body about 11:25 a.m. near a wooded spot in a low-lying area near Route 198 and Racetrack Road. The name of the victim, a black woman, had not been released as of Thursday evening.
The woman used services at the Grassroots Day Resource Center on U.S. 1, center manager Melinda Becker said.
Becker called the woman "very beautiful and sweet — just really lost," and said she was receiving addiction counseling.
"She was so tiny, and she looked very, very young," said Becker, adding that the woman appeared to be in her early 20s.
Becker said she had been scheduled to pick up the woman at 8 a.m. Thursday at a shopping center near the homeless camp, which is near the Laurel Park racetrack — to be assessed for in-patient treatment.
"She never showed up," Becker said.
On Thursday morning, with the dam release looming, Laurel Mayor Craig A. Moe signed an order calling for the evacuation of all residential and business properties from Main Street north to the Patuxent River, which is the border between Howard and Prince George's counties.
Even with robocalls from the city and Laurel police going door to door, some residents and Main Street business owners were confused about the seriousness of the situation. At times, southbound U.S. 1 was blocked off at the Patuxent and evacuation signs were posted, while many businesses remained open and unaffected.
Matthew Coates, chairman of the Laurel Board of Trade and owner of a photography studio at Fourth and Main streets, felt his second-floor studio was probably safe but noted that "the city did recommend we evacuate, in case of emergency."
Jamie Trimble, who lives on Avondale Street, said she didn't know about the flooding until she returned home around noon and found her street blocked.
She planned to pull items together in case she needed to take her sons, ages 2 and 5, to an evacuation site at the Robert J. DiPietro Community Center. "I'm not going to freak out about it," she said.
Shortly after 7 p.m. Thursday, Laurel lifted the emergency and canceled the evacuation order, according to city spokesman Pete Piringer. Some areas still had standing water, he said, but the WSSC had reduced the rate of water being released. The commission said it expected to continue releasing water over the next few days, and the duration and volume would depend on the weather.
During the day, a "couple dozen" people sought shelter at the evacuation center as a precautionary measure, but there had been no significant property damage, Piringer said.
In Montgomery County, emergency calls ranged from individuals who drove cars into standing water and became stranded, to others caught by fast-moving currents in flash floods, said Beth Anne Nesselt, a county fire and rescue spokeswoman.
In one case, on Brighton Dam Road just over the western Howard County line, a driver squatted on the seat while calling 911. Rescuers arrived to find water up to the handle of the car door and were able to free the driver.
No injuries and no other deaths were reported as a result of the flooding.
Police said a witness in Laurel told them he had advised the flood victim to leave the area because the rising waters were unsafe. The woman's body was found about two hours later.
Homeless people in encampments face daily hazards, said Stephen Sternheimer, a board member of FISH of Laurel, which operates a soup kitchen and food pantry that serves the working poor and the homeless.
"The dangers are great and constant because they're subject to storms, flooding, personal violence," said Sternheimer, who also volunteers at the Grassroots Day Resource Center. "Everybody's goal is to get people out of these camps, into housing and back into the community, not only as workers, but also as people who feel they belong."
The homeless camp where the woman lived has flooded before, Becker said, and the people who live there encounter other dangers as well.
"High wind makes me stay awake at night for them," Becker said. "They in some cases live so deep in the woods that the trees just come down on them — and that's where we get the most nervous for them."
Police were continuing to investigate the woman's death.
Baltimore Sun reporters Jonathan Pitts and Scott Dance contributed to this article.
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