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Ellicott City business owner’s camera system has been ‘critical’ to monitoring floodwaters, Howard County says

On Main Street in historic Ellicott City, there are layers of old and new architecture stacked on one another. There are surviving intricate details that have lasted the test of time and others that have washed away. And now there is something — and someone — watching over it all, creating a permanent record.

Ron Peters, an active Ellicott City community member and business owner, has 22 cameras watching over Old Ellicott City at all times. From the bottom to the top of the Main Street hill, and further up the road at the Ellicott City Colored School, Peters has a complete view of the historic district.

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This view coincidentally caught two hours of the July 2016 flood that ripped through Ellicott City and the entirety of the May 2018 flood. Now, that view has become a refined, essential tool that Peters, the county government and local residents use to monitor frequent rising waters.

“We didn’t have a way to document before the cameras,” said Peters, who now lives in Windsor Mill. “Every time it rains, people are calling me about the cameras.”

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When Peters put up his first camera at the Howard House, a mixed-use residential and commercial property that he owns on Main Street, he was looking for an added layer of security. Instead, he got a full two hours of exactly what happened during the historic and deadly flood on July 30, 2016.

After that, Peters started thinking about how expanding the view of what happens when it rains could be beneficial to Main Street business owners and the county alike. That’s when the camera system, as it exists now, took off.

“I started installing the cameras in the very beginning of 2018. I put up 13 cameras at six locations in early 2018,” Peters said. “At that time I thought, ‘We just wasted all this money. We’re never going to use this.’ A week later we flooded.”

Peters’ camera system ended up being an integral part to the recovery efforts and evaluation of the flood on May 27, 2018. The Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services and police used the cameras to rescue individuals from the flooded community. Peters had collected more than 45 hours of footage from all the different cameras he had set up; the footage now lives on YouTube, for any and all to see.

“Before the camera system was in place, we used to have individuals from the police department or fire department go and be boots on the ground and give us information and give intel on spots that we knew were key spots,” said Mike Hinson, director of Howard County’s Office of Emergency Management.

When it came to the expansion of the camera system, Peters reached out to longtime friend and Ellicott City resident Pete Greer. Greer owns Granilux Solutions, a Gaithersburg company that provides commercial and government security. Together the friends engineered the plan for a camera system that could capture a full picture of the historic district and the intersecting waterways.

“I had to go to every property owner and ask to put up a camera and use their internet,” Peters said. “Not one [property owner] said no.”

The cameras are commercial quality, called “enterprise-level cameras,” according to Greer. They are mounted at a distance so they’re protected regardless of natural disasters.

“The cameras, to me, act as a validation to all the different sensors and data that the National Weather Service gathers,” Greer said. “As they are seeing flash flooding watches and warnings going into effect, it gives validation to where the water level is.”

Greer and Peters also engineered the project with a bit of redundancy. They wanted to create a reliable network so if one camera went down, there were still other cameras and angles capturing a complete picture of the area.

Most of the cameras have 30 days’ worth of storage on them, and they all are running and recording 24/7; they are set up using the internet of the business or building they are attached to. Some buildings have multiple cameras sprawling across their exteriors to capture both the watershed and the street angles.

Peters and Greer also set up trigger devices, which measure the water depth in the waterways near Main Street. Through the camera, the system is notified when water hits a certain level and it sends an alert out to the informal network that exists within Ellicott City business owners and residents. The camera software sends the alert to everyone’s cellphones that the specific location is at a flood level and they have 15 minutes to react.

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Peters said he offered the county the ability to give all residents access to the text message system, but county officials worried it could cause panic and a mass exodus of the area every time the alert went off.

“The trigger device is very inexpensive because we knew after and during an event it’s going to probably destroy the device,” Greer said.

The text message alert system was triggered as recently as June when rain poured over Ellicott City.

Since he started the project, Peters has spent somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 out of his own pocket. He also said he’s spent about 200 hours in installation and upkeep of the equipment so it’s usable at all times. Currently he said he might install two or three more cameras.

“Ron’s support and coordination with our office, the Office of Emergency Management and others has been critical to monitoring and safeguarding Ellicott City during heavy rainfall,” County Executive Calvin Ball said in a statement.

“The camera system he put in place allows our stormwater and public safety teams to work collaboratively to track the level of water in the stream channels, monitor key points that indicate a potential flash flood, and alert businesses and residents of imminent hazards.”

While emergency services and county officials use Peters’ cameras regularly, he has yet to be financially compensated for the equipment or the time he puts into it. However, Peters said he is in talks with the county to get some kind of reimbursement.

As recently as four months ago, Peters was installing new cameras in Ellicott City, this time in the West End area of Ellicott City at Wendy Pidel’s house. The Pidel home is one of two behind the Hudson Stream.

Pidel said the cameras are especially helpful when she’s not at home, like earlier this summer. She found herself checking in on the cameras to see how the waters were rising while she and her family were on vacation in the Outer Banks. There were heavy rains falling at one point, and Pidel knew the potential risk for her home. Luckily this time there was so no flooding.

“It makes me feel like we can vouch for ourselves now that we have these cameras,” Pidel said. “Ron goes above and beyond on his own, so we’re extremely thankful that he’s taken this on.”

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