Ellicott City property owner Ron Peters has installed 13 video cameras in and around Old Ellicott City. This is the view from one of his cameras over a 4 hour period on Court Avenue off Main Street. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun)
Early one mid-May morning, heavy rain awoke Ron Peters and sent him fumbling for his iPad.
On the screen, a network of live video feeds revealed Ellicott City was not flooding. The views came from a $13,000 network of cameras Peters had just installed around the historic Main Street corridor so he could keep tabs on several properties he owns there.
Two weeks later, the cameras showed a different picture.
They captured every moment of the devastating flooding on May 27, as the Tiber and Hudson branches overflowed channel walls, carrying muddy water and mountains of debris through the old mill town for a second time in two years.
Peters had shared access to the feeds with Howard County officials just weeks earlier, so they were able to watch the footage live in their emergency operations center. They say it allowed them to keep staff and first responders out of harm’s way and send them where they were most needed.
That’s exactly why Peters says he decided to invest his own money and time to build the surveillance network. An Ellicott City native, he has vivid memories of the historic flooding that occured in 1972 when the Patapsco River pushed into Ellicott City during Hurricane Agnes. And as a member of a flooding work group Howard officials convened in 2015 — even before the deadly July 2016 flood — he has thoughts and concerns about how to prevent future disasters.
While Peters said he doesn’t fault county leaders’ response to the 2016 flood, he was motivated by frustration “with how long it takes government to do something.”
One county official agreed that Peters stepped up in a way the government can’t as easily, because of regulations and red tape. Phil Nichols, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer, said video surveillance by the government can be extra thorny.
“It’s always a difficult conversation and difficult for government to do,” Nichols said.
Peters grew up on Rogers Avenue with his parents and six siblings. He now lives in the Windsor Mill area of Baltimore County and runs a body shop in Reisterstown and a farm in southern Virginia. But he still owns three properties on Main Street and Frederick Road in his hometown, and remains active in the community.
At 4:27 p.m. the weather service sent out its first flash flood warning that popped up on area cell phones. Some residents however say the alert came too late, that by then they were already surrounded by water.
He was among 10 community members county officials tapped in 2015 for the Historic Ellicott City Flood Workgroup, and he spent hours with other members exploring the town’s Tiber-Hudson watershed and debating strategies to protect the old mill town from flooding.
He started thinking about video surveillance after his tenants told him about their warning system in the event of a major flood: It involved watching the stream, and a large rock.
“They said, ‘When it gets to that rock, we know we have to move our cars,’” he recalled.
In January, he began installing a system that has grown to include 15 cameras — about half of them facing portions of the Tiber and Hudson branches and the rest pointed toward Main Street — six DVR storage devices and 1,000 feet of CAT 5 cables. The process required working with various businesses that allowed him to mount cameras at their property, as well as gaining approval of a county historic preservation board.
Evan Brown, owner of Portalli’s restaurant on Main Street, said he jumped a chance to keep an eye on his property. Peters gave Brown and other business owners access to the feeds, and they have used them to investigate a burglary, vandalism and hit-and-run accidents.
As Brown watched the rain come down in sheets May 27, he had a feeling Main Street was in trouble. After checking the footage, he decided to skip his niece’s birthday party and head downtown. By the time he got there, a torrent was washing down Main Street. He watched from the roof of Wessel’s Florist across the street.
After Ellicott City suffered the deadly and devastating flash flood of 2016, the Howard County government commissioned an engineering study to determine how much it would cost to make the historic mill town safer. The answer: A lot.
That’s because there is limited data available on the hydrology and the hydraulics of the streams that converge on Main Street and flow into the Patapsco. There are only two gauges to monitor water speeds and levels around Ellicott City, though less than a week before last month’s flood, county officials announced plans to install 48 more. The devices are expected to help meteorologists and county officials better predict future flash floods.
For now, Peters’ videos are some of the best evidence available to show what happens when a deluge hits the rocky slopes surrounding Main Street. He says they suggest some glaring needs — such as a bottleneck in a narrow culvert beneath the intersection of Main Street and Court Avenue, and the need for better stormwater retention upstream of Main Street.
County officials are happy for the help. At a press conference announcing the stream gauge expansion, County Executive Allan Kittleman invited Peters to speak, thanking him for the surveillance system and “for all you’ve done for Ellicott City.”