After July 30 flood, Howard embraces 'battle rhythm'

Behind the barricades blocking flood-damaged Main Street, a battle rhythm resounded.

Days that begin with daily 8 a.m. briefings were capped with Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman's nightly ritual: a ride on open-top gators through the dark and damp streets of West End, where the county's top Republican spoke with residents.

State and local officials from as far as Colorado tackled the county's emergency response in the critical days after the July 30 flood gutted dozens of businesses and displaced nearly 200 residents.

Gary Kuc, the county's solicitor, answered calls at the county's call center. The Department of Corrections provided food. Staff from the Howard County Economic Development Authority shuttled business and property owners on gators through flood-ravaged Main Street.

"The whole response was very nonconventional," said Brian Sheavly, the authority's marketing director. "Everyone did what was needed to be done."

The county's emergency response strategy, signed into law by executive order in June last year, was put to the test, drawing in "a whole universe of people who put in nights and weekends to keep things moving," said Ryan Miller, director of the county's Office of Emergency Management.

That emergency management plan, required by state and federal laws, set the foundation for what county officials called a successful and swift emergency response.

"We tried to plan for the recovery before the disaster happens," Miller said.

The county's emergency operations center was up and running around 8 p.m. the night of the flood. Within 12 hours, the county realized they could not handle the disaster response alone, a key realization that Kittleman said helped the county react quickly.

County officials requested an incident management team from the state's disaster agency. A team from Pennsylvania, led by Kevin Nelson, landed in Ellicott City the next day. Other incident management teams were also involved in the multi-agency response.

Nelson said he slipped behind the "curtain in the land of Oz" into Kittleman's daily cabinet meetings. What he saw there was a model for other jurisdictions operating in disaster mode, Nelson said.

His team, which has worked in disaster zones like the riots in Baltimore and fugitive manhunts, helped the county follow procedures to organize the disaster response in a professional, organized and efficient manner.

"I've had the privilege of traveling all over the country to step in during disasters. Howard County has a lot to be proud of in its elected officials and county personnel," Nelson said. "It is a case study for a lot of best practices that others in the nation should reflect on."

Kittleman's major policy decisions, which included determining when and how to grant access to business owners, property owners and residents eager to enter the area, boiled down to striking a balance between "human needs and infrastructure challenges," Kittleman said.

At one point, two buildings faced impending collapse. The county shut down trips to Main Street by residents and owners almost immediately to allow crews to shore up buildings and contain the situation.

"This was a very dynamic situation everyday," Kittleman said.

Nelson said the county's staff and volunteers handled the response well.

"A relationship was built under pressure of an incident. Under this pressure, [the county is] now shining like diamonds," he said.

Early estimates for public infrastructure damages have topped $22 million, and crews have cleared more than 2,000 tons of debris.

In an emergency response as complex as the July 30 flood, the county's response was not all blue skies.

Several miles away along the Patapsco River, a sewage line break after the flood dumped around 20 million gallons of sewage into the waters.

Volunteers and crews coursed through the sewage and debris-filled waters to clean up while a public health advisory by the county's health department urged the public to avoid contact with the area downstream of the Sylvan Lane overflow site.

Kittleman acknowledged the need to work with other jurisdictions to improve public communication.

"Maybe not all the counties are on the same page," Kittleman said. "We should probably do a better job [coordinating] with Baltimore and Anne Arundel county."

The county's health department issued a precautionary health alert on Aug. 3, the same day it learned of the break, said the department's spokeswoman Lisa DeHernandez.

The department lifted the advisory 14 days later. Signs were posted in areas of Patapsco Valley State Park.

Existing public messaging systems like HeadsUp Howard are typically used for flash flood warnings and weather-related advisories, Kittleman said.

As a result, the tool was not suitable to provide updates to residents impacted in a limited geographic area, Kittleman said.

Kittleman applauded the county's public communication system, which sent social media blasts and maintained a website with information.

The county plans to study the effectiveness of its disaster response, a customary practice that is part of the county's emergency management strategy, and identify areas for improvement.

Credentialing to control who entered and exited the restricted area of Main Street was a major challenge, county officials said.

After the 2014 shooting at the Mall in Columbia, the county recognized the need for a credentialing system, Miller said.

But enforcing credentials along the restricted area, which extended for miles, was difficult, especially because so many types of people — contractors, business owners, residents, damage specialists and engineers — sought access for different amounts of time, Miller said.

Access was varied. Three days after the flood, a pizza delivery man dropped off food for a broadcast news crew parked on Main Street. In the early days, residents decried limited access to Main Street to salvage belongings as they watched business and property owners gaining access to the street.

Other business owners worried about growing mold damaging otherwise untouched businesses.

'Trust the process'

One weekend, Kittleman popped his head into dumpsters on Main Street to see how full they were.

The county's Department of Public Works took "a huge risk" by shuttling dumpsters across Main Street in a five-day push to help residents and business owners clean up, Miller said.

Full dumpsters could create bottlenecks in a complex process to shift piles of debris, muck and junk out of the constrained street on a weekend as people cleaned up.

Miller told Kittleman, "Allan, you can't look into dumpsters like that. You have to trust the process."

"Trust the process" became an adage for Kittleman throughout the response as he worked with state and local officials to turn policy directive into post-disaster response strategy.

"It was pretty hard for him to stick to the process," Miller said. "The national disaster model has cycles and processes built in. The only way you can work through the process is to stick to it." He's kind of a doer who is ready to pick up the phone and use his powers to get the things done."

Miller hopes other jurisdictions will tap into volunteer resources like AmeriCorp representatives, whom he called a "small army of some of the most dedicated, bright and hardworking young minds.

Kittleman said the public's patience with the county's ongoing recovery effort allowed the county to swiftly complete its work.

"I can't think of one person who has seen me on the street either in the West End or in the business section who has really been angry. They're come up with requests and concerns … but everybody has been understanding and very respectful." Kittleman said.

The county has since shifted to what is expected to be a long road to recovery.

Last week, Kittleman told the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, an organization of regional elected officials, the moral of the story is "be prepared."

"I told them … please get your emergency response plans ready now. … Everyone in this room should be scared about what happened in Ellicott City."

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