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After flood, Kittleman calls on council to extend state of emergency to Sept. 20

A worker with Potts & Callahan uses an excavator to move large rocks and pieces of retaining walls that were sent down the Hudson Branch during historic flooding on July 30. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, clears the Hudson River, one of two waterways blocked by storm debris.
A worker with Potts & Callahan uses an excavator to move large rocks and pieces of retaining walls that were sent down the Hudson Branch during historic flooding on July 30. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, clears the Hudson River, one of two waterways blocked by storm debris. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

As Ellicott City recovers from a flash flood last month that left two people dead, pummeled dozens of businesses and displaced 190 residents, county officials said they are committed to reduce the risk of future flooding in the flood-prone historic district.

Although the storm caused the Patapsco River to rise 13 feet in nearly two hours, Ryan Miller, director of the county's Office of Emergency Management, told the Howard County Council Monday evening that the causes of the storm were "complex" and warrant stronger flood mitigation techniques.

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"It's our intent to put things back better," Miller said.

Main Street will reopen on Sept. 16 as crews complete temporary repairs. The storm caused at least $22.4 million in damages to public infrastructure, an estimate that includes costs of repairing a broken sewer line that dumped around 20 million gallons into the Patapsco River, Miller said. The closure comes after the county opened the area for five days to allow residents and businesses owners to clean out their homes and shops.

Although the disaster is classified as a 1,000-year-event, which means it has a one-in-a-thousand chance of occurring per year, some council members urged the administration to study how increased development in the area contributed to the disaster.

Councilman Jon Weinstein, who represents Ellicott City, said older neighborhoods in the area do not require more modern and stricter stormwater management techniques, indicating the need to explore possible policy changes.

The administration is preparing a case study to recreate the flow of floodwaters and document how specific properties were impacted by the flood.

If President Obama approves the state's request for federal disaster aid, the county will have access to funds key to "more proactive and more expensive" flood mitigation projects, Miller said.

Recovery could take months, county officials said, leaving some businesses displaced by the storm with an uncertain future.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman created a committee to recommend how to distribute more than $650,000 in donations for flood relief.

The Ellicott City Partnership, which will continue to provide $500 emergency grants through the end of the month, will distribute most of the funds through a broad application process based on the committee's recommendations.

Tom Coale, vice president of the partnership, noted the need to spend funds wisely in order to avoid a worse-case scenario of an empty fund and an empty Main Street, should businesses and residents choose not to return.

"With limited resources and the loss being so great across the board … the money is eventually going to run out," Coale said.

United Way, a major nonprofit organization, plans to transfer 80 percent of its donations received for Ellicott City flood relief to the nonprofit over the next several days, making the partnership the lead for distributing donations. Once transferred, the funds can only be used to fulfill humanitarian needs, such as food, shelter and mold remediation, a restriction set by United Way's mission as a nonprofit.

As the committee examines how to distribute funds, Kittleman called on the Howard County Council to extend the current state of emergency to Sept. 20. The council originally extended the state of emergency through Sept. 7 at Kittleman's request to allow county crews to continue recovery efforts.

By law, the state of emergency allows the Kittleman administration to control traffic, vehicles and public transportation, as well as limited access to public roads and the occupancy of buildings and can include imposing a curfew.

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"Clearly, this is a dynamic and constantly changing situation, and we have said from the start that ensuring public safety is a top priority in this recovery," Kittleman said.

The extension request drew ire from Council Chairman Calvin Ball, who said he was caught off-guard by the request, which he said he first learned of through a press release sent Aug. 22 during the council's session with the administration.

Councilwoman Jen Terrasa said there is "clearly some room for improvement" in how the administration communicates with the council.

County spokesman Mark Miller said the administration has "worked with Councilman Weinstein on all matters related to the flooding since the original extension by the County Council." The administration discussed the need for the extension with Weinstein on Saturday.

"Monday morning. Councilman Weinstein advised us that he would discuss the extension request with the Chairman and the other council members. The request was submitted on Monday afternoon," Miller wrote in a statement.

The administration does not anticipate seeking further extension of the state of emergency beyond Sept. 20, Miller said.

The designation is essential to allow the county to restrict access beyond Sept. 7, when the current extension expires, he said.

Since the July 30 flood, crews have cleared more than 2,000 tons of debris, repaired a major sewer line break and repaired retaining walls on Hamilton Street and Main Street near the B&O Museum.

Although crews have shored damaged buildings, 12 buildings are unsafe to access, according to the administration's report.

All 22 vehicles buried in the Patapsco River during the flood have been removed by the county and the state's Department of Natural Resources. The county also coordinating temporary housing for 19 households, according to the report.

The school system is also setting up alternate bus stops at Main Street and Ellicott Mills Drive and at College Avenue and New Cut Road to accommodate 14 families affected by the flood.

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