A week after a basement wall of a house in Elkridge caved in and drove out the elderly homeowner, Howard County officials are still puzzling over what caused the collapse.
A 12-foot tear in the wall of a house in the 6100 block of Downs Ave. occurred Thursday evening after torrential storms dumped about 4 inches of rain in the Elkridge area in 24 hours.
"We're trying to understand what happened, because this was an extraordinary occurrence," said Sang Oh, an aide to County Executive James N. Robey. Oh is leading the investigation. "It's difficult to look at the site and find out what happened."
Oh said a sewer main beneath part of Downs Avenue is supposed to capture much of the rain that falls in the area, but, for an unknown reason, runoff from Thursday's storms reached the house on Downs Avenue.
The damage to the bungalow is visible from the street. Part of the asphalt driveway along the east side of the house is gone, and pink fiberglass insulation can be seen around the hole in the basement wall.
The destruction was severe enough for county officials to declare the house unsafe and prohibit anyone from using it.
The owner, Betty Ogden, is reportedly living with her daughter, Susan. Efforts to contact Ogden were unsuccessful.
Her neighbors worry that the same thing could happen to their basement walls.
"I'm keeping my fingers crossed," said Charles W. Orr, who saw the hole in Ogden's wall. "You can drive a car through it."
Some residents blame the construction of a new subdivision at the end of Downs Avenue. They claim that a fence installed by the builder to retain sediment and divert water away from homes is inadequate.
"They didn't grade it right," said Raymond Trahan, who lives across the street from the Ogden home. "The way they got the silt fence set up, it funnels water to her house."
Juanita Rutters said the homeowners had no problems with runoff on Downs Avenue and in their front yards until the construction began.
"We have mud and rocks running down the road," says Rutters, who has lived on Downs Avenue for five years. "We never had that before."
Greg Altieri, vice president of Altieri Homes, which is building the 20-home project, denies there is any connection between the construction of Downs Ridge and the damage to Ogden's home.
"It definitely didn't have anything to do with us," Altieri says. "I don't know how anyone could blame Altieri Homes."
Altieri says his company complied with every regulation required by the county and even installed what is known as a "super-silt fence," which involves planting a chain-link fence beneath the topsoil and adding a nylon fence above ground to prevent sediment erosion.
Oh said preliminary reviews of the builder's plans show that Altieri Homes adhered to the county code for construction of a subdivision.
Oh also said officials are considering several measures to divert future water runoff to the sewer drain, including building an earthen berm between Downs Ridge and the homes on Downs Avenue.
He added that the county is exploring the possibility of sharing the cost of rebuilding Ogden's wall with Altieri Homes.
Oh said the mystery behind the collapse could remain unsolved.
"It's difficult to ascertain" what occurred, he said. "I'm not sure if we'll ever know."