An intense flurry of lightning early Thursday sparked fires that destroyed a church steeple and the roof of a Middle River home as heavy downpours also closed the Walters Art Museum for the day Thursday, continuing a rainy spring that already has raised concerns about flooding and erosion.
"It looked like a bomb went off," the Rev. Jack Bussard said of the damage to Monkton United Methodist Church and its 144-year-old steeple.
Meteorologists acknowledged that the system that passed through the region in the early morning hours had impressive electrical activity, though they do not track lightning strikes unless they cause damage. The 3 inches of rain that fell added to a rainfall surplus that has ballooned to nearly a foot at the Inner Harbor, increasing concerns about damage to roads and other infrastructure.
The Maryland Transit Authority is closing three light rail stops in North Baltimore for three weeks starting Friday because of emergency repairs needed to address erosion. And the city is spending $18.5 million to rebuild a retaining wall after a portion of East 26th Street collapsed onto CSX train tracks in Charles Village amid heavy rains in April. Flash flooding associated with that same rain damaged multiple businesses along the Jones Falls Valley in Woodberry and Mount Washington
The lightning and flooding from Thursday's storms added parishioners, museumgoers and a Middle River family to the list of those displaced by weather this spring.
Bussard said he is looking for another place to hold worship services after church members and work crews spent the day cleaning up after the fire. A 911 caller reported the lightning strike and fire at 1:37 a.m., and firefighters brought the blaze under control shortly after 4 a.m.
"It is what it is," Bussard said. "We're glad no one got hurt."
Half an hour before the Monkton lightning strike, a bolt set a home in the first block of Bogby Court in Middle River on fire, waking the family inside. The blaze was brought under control an hour and a half later, but the roof collapsed and the flames damaged adjacent homes.
Kaytee Orzech, 29, who lives in the house with her father, mother and daughter, called the lightning strike "the scariest thing ever to wake up to."
Her sister-in-law Amanda Orzech, 28, an Abingdon resident who was staying there with her husband and two sons, said the lightning struck just before 1 a.m.
"There was a huge boom, it sounded like a bomb went off," Orzech said. "As soon as we heard it, we scooped up the kids and ran out."
The storms had strong updrafts because of atmospheric instability, likely increasing the separation between positive and negative charges and spurring more lightning, said Amy Bettwy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Baltimore/Washington forecast office in Sterling, Va.
"We did get a lot of calls that people said they've never seen lightning like that before," Bettwy said.
At the Walters Art Museum in Mount Vernon, officials were forced to close at 11 a.m. Thjursday and ask a touring group to leave when it was discovered that water had seeped into the building earlier in the day and posed a threat to the museum's electrical system. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. crews investigated and gave the all-clear for the museum to reopen Friday morning.
While there haven't been more flood warnings this year than in recent years, rainfall has been extreme in some areas. While rainfall at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the point of record for Baltimore, is about 6 inches above normal, the Inner Harbor has seen 11 inches more rain than normal, said Jason Elliott, a hydrologist with the weather service.
Most of that surplus for the Inner Harbor dates to April, when nearly 9 inches of rain fell in a 16-day period, but about 40 percent of it has been added this month, Elliott said. The storms that passed through early Thursday dropped more than 3 inches of rain, according to the weather service.
At BWI, 1.42 inches of rain fell Thursday, breaking a record for June 19 of 1.38 inches set in 1996. A storm capable of producing a tornado passed through Calvert County and parts of southern Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties Thursday evening, prompting a tornado warning for about half an hour.
Thursday's storms caused as many as 33,000 electricity outages across BGE's territory, but by early evening the number without power had fallen to 1,100.
State Highway Administration crews have been focusing on frequently flooded areas this spring for signs of erosion hazards or damage to roads, spokesman David Buck said. The areas include Eastern Avenue in Chase, Philadelphia Road in White Marsh, U.S. 40 in East Baltimore and Harford County, and Paper Mill and Monkton roads in northern Baltimore County.
In one other low-lying area, Falls Road between Old Pimlico and Ruxton roads, crews installed large stones as erosion control measures in May after the waters of the Jones Falls caused some minor damage to the roadway during April rains.
"After a brutal winter, we've had a very wet few months," Buck said.
With any rain ahead, flooding risks can compound because streams and rivers can quickly overflow because the soil is saturated already, Elliott said.
Showers and storms are forecast this weekend, but they are not expected to be heavy.
Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Smith contributed to this article.
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