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)
A week after floodwaters tore through Ellicott City for the second time in two years, the Howard County community is struggling to overcome reluctance from donors and residents asking whether they were warned quickly enough about the flood.
Although fundraisers have pulled in hundreds of thousands of dollars toward Ellicott City’s recovery in the week since Main Street flooded, some fundraisers said Monday that donors have been more hesitant to give money for the historic mill town than after the flood in 2016.
Ellicott City collectively received more than $1 million in donations in 2016, said Beverly White-Seals, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Howard County. This time around, she said, donors are more skeptical about opening their checkbooks.
She said prospective donors ask questions like, “How many times are we going to do this? Are they really going to rebuild down there again? Are there other things we can be spending our money on?”
White-Seals said she reminds prospective donors that the money the community foundation raises will go toward the people affected by the floods — not the physical reconstruction of Ellicott City. The foundation had received about $75,000 in donations as of Monday, with an additional $23,000 pledged, she said.
“What we’re focused on right now are helping the people who no longer have a car, a home, a job,” White-Seals said. “There are certainly immediate needs, and businesses that have gone into debt to rebuild expecting that they wouldn’t have another 1,000-year flood in their lifetime are absolutely devastated, not only physically but financially.”
Ellicott City native Ron Peters finished installing a network of surveillance cameras weeks before the town suffered its second devastating flood in two years. The footage it captured shows the flood developing in dramatic fashion.
Maureen Sweeney Smith, executive director of the Ellicott City Partnership, said her organization has brought in “tens of thousands” since the May 27 flood, and she thinks fundraising is on pace with the aftermath of the 2016 flood. Her organization’s mailbox has been stuffed with checks each day. But she’s also fielded more questions from potential donors asking why Ellicott City is rebuilding as the threat of future floods looms.
“I just think people really want Ellicott City there, and it may be a different form when we’re finalized,” she said, “but I really think we need to maintain as much as we can and support the business that are coming back.”
Several business owners already have proclaimed their intention to rebuild, while others have said they won’t return because the risk of another destructive flood is too great.
Dozens of Main Street businesses and their supporters have launched campaigns to crowdfund their recovery and support out-of-work employees. The shops, bars and restaurants had raised tens of thousands of dollars through crowdfunding as of Monday.
Susan Repko, a spokeswoman for the United Way of Central Maryland, said in an email that Ellicott City has seen more independent fundraising efforts with this flood than in 2016. The United Way of Central Maryland reopened its #ECStrong campaign — established in July 2016 after another flood swept through Main Street. This time organization raised $60,000 in the campaign’s first week, Repko said. In 2016 the United Way raised $340,000 total for Ellicott City.
Asked whether she’s noticed more hesitancy from donors this year, Repko said it’s too soon to tell.
Those who were in Ellicott City during the May 27 flooding also were asking questions — about whether the National Weather Service flood warning alert arrived in time.
The region was already under a flood watch when the weather service issued a flood warning, meaning flooding was imminent or occurring, at 3:19 p.m. The first flood-related call to Howard County’s 911 emergency dispatch center was received at 3:55 p.m.
At 4:27 p.m., the weather service sent its first flash flood warning to cellphones, according to Warning Coordination Meteorologist Chris Strong. Two minutes earlier, water had reached a “minimal flooding” stream gauge at Rogers Avenue and Frederick Road, meaning water from a nearby stream channel was spilling onto the road, Strong said.
But some residents said they already were surrounded by floodwaters by that time.
Chris McIntyre, who lives at the bottom of Main Street, said water was surging already and there had been flooding for nearly half an hour, so much so that he had started a Facebook live video stream.
Early videos, including some from The Baltimore Sun, show water rushing down Main Street at 4:25 p.m.
McIntyre said the waters rose from ankle level to what he believes was 11 feet high within minutes. By the time he said he realized how high the water was, it was too late to flee and he went to the third floor of his building.
“Had I gotten an alert, I would have left,” McIntyre said. “Whenever that alert went off we were already full-blown flood. I remember laughing, ‘We don’t know we’re under water already?’ ”
Lee Biars was driving home when he got hit by a wave in front of Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. on Main Street at 4:26 p.m. He said he abandoned his car and walked home through water that was already waist-deep. He said his car was totaled.
“More of a heads-up would have been great, but I could clearly see that there was a flooding danger from where I was,” Biars said.
Based on the gauge at Rogers Avenue and Frederick Road, major flooding, causing damage to buildings and the road of upper Main Street, happened at 5:45 p.m., according to Strong. The water reached its peak at the gauge at 5:55 p.m.
Flash-flood warning alerts were sent by the National Weather Service using its Integrated Public Alert and Warning System to area cellphones at 4:27 p.m., 4:50 p.m., 5:07 p.m. and 5:47 p.m., according to Howard County spokesman Mark Miller.
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.
Strong said that the system worked correctly on May 27 to send out alerts to residents. After any major weather event that uses the system, he said National Weather Service and local officials review the system to determine possible improvements, a process that took weeks following the flood in July 2016.
The week before the flood, Strong was among those at a county news conference unveiling plans for new gauges to be installed throughout the Ellicott City watershed, meant to better analyze water flow patterns.
County officials want to use that data to help improve the alert system, Miller said.
Eventually, Strong said, the goal is to use data to help forecasters better predict when it will flood and how much, to buy residents more time ahead of a flood, if even just a few minutes.
Forecasters also announced Monday that greater Baltimore saw more rain in the last eight days than the region typically gets in a month. Much of the rain fell May 27. Ellicott City saw a foot of rain in eight days. Storm clouds dumped an average of 5 to 7 inches on the Baltimore area, saturating the ground and testing the limits of the region’s infrastructure.
Rain totals were “very variable, depending on if you were under one of the ‘training thunderstorms,’ ” so called because they come in sequence, said Cody Ledbetter, a National Weather Service meteorologist. “Still it would be above normal for this time of year, or any time of year.”
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.
It’s rare for the Baltimore area to see so much rain in a concentrated period of time, especially without a tropical storm or hurricane, Ledbetter said.
Last month was Baltimore’s third-wettest May on record, and, in the first four days of June, rainfall recorded at BWI Marshall Airport was approaching the monthly average already. The heavy precipitation stressed infrastructure — washing out roads and bursting culverts — and flooding continued to cause problems across Central Maryland into Monday.
Flood warnings were lifted before midnight Monday, and rain ceased in the area by the morning. But flood dangers remained through Monday night around large rivers, such as the Potomac. More than a dozen roads were closed in Howard County Monday because of flooding.
In Laurel, rain washed out part of a bridge on Route 198, where a piece of road broke away between Bald Eagle Drive and Airfield Road. And near Sykesville, parts of River Road were destroyed.
Anne Arundel County also reported at least six road closures because of flooding Monday morning.
Although rain continued throughout the week, it did not hamper recovery efforts on Ellicott City’s Main Street, said Jim Irvin, Howard County’s public works director. The damage Ellicott City sustained was worse than in 2016, he said.
Irvin estimated crews had removed 200 truckloads of mud and debris from Main Street and surrounding streams and culverts in the eight days since the flood. Workers are continuing to repair sidewalks, check drainage systems and clear debris from waterways. Long-term projects include repairing a failed wall next to the welcome center and replacing a culvert at Ellicott Mills Drive.
“Since we’ve done this before we’re kind of more adept for how to deal with it,” Irvin said. “We’re going to be working all day long every day.”