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Extreme weather

Surreal scenes as torrential flooding sends rapids roaring through historic Ellicott City, Maryland

Governor declares state of emergency as residents await rescue

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 May, 2018, 10:20am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 May, 2018, 10:23am

A flash flood raged through the heart of historic Ellicott City, Maryland, on Sunday evening, sending residents and tourists fleeing from the surreal scenes and sparking a massive response by rescuers.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced he had declared a state of emergency in Howard County and huddled with emergency officials to assess the extent of the damage, which was not fully known. No injuries were immediately reported.

The National Weather Service called the flooding an “extremely dangerous and potentially catastrophic situation” as the rains pounded the city Sunday evening. Amid the flooding, the Howard fire department warned people trapped on the city’s Main Street to climb to the second floors of buildings as they awaited rescue and said the damage could rival devastating flood that occurred there in 2016.

Officials said there were reports of collapsed buildings. Hundreds of rescuers had converged from as far away as Northern Virginia, officials said, and Howard opened an emergency operations centre to manage its response.

Videos taken on Ellicott City’s Main Street show roiling brown rapids, carrying cars and debris before them. The water spilled into doors and windows and twisted traffic lights.

Loretta Moran was returning with her husband to their house on Main Street from their son’s wedding the night before when they noticed the Tiber River was running extremely high. They parked their car in front of their house and soon noticed some of their tenants trapped on their house’s upper floors.

As they rushed across Main Street, the water went from a trickle at their feet to their knees.

Loretta, 64, and her husband, Tim, 66, led the eight stranded tenants – including a two-year-old child – and a dog out through their back exit.

“We have a deck that goes into the woods, and we knew that was an escape route to Church Road,” she said.

The group of 10 then scrambled uphill through the woods toward the Castle Angelo, a castle-like home built in the 1830s into the rocks above Ellicott City, overlooking the Patapsco River.

“It was horrible,” Moran said of the scramble through the woods. “The ground was washing away beneath us.”

When she looked back, she said, she could see water as high as five metres. She saw workout equipment washing down the street, leading her to believe a gym had collapsed.

When she reached her son on the phone, the newlywed asked her why they had gotten out of the car.

“People don’t understand,” she said, on the verge of tears, “it happens so quickly.”

Before declaring a state of emergency, Hogan activated the state’s emergency response, which sends extra rescue personnel to the scene from various state agencies, said his spokeswoman Amelia Chasse.

“The governor sends his thoughts and deepest sympathies to those impacted, including residents and businesses in Ellicott City,” Chasse said.

Jeff Halverson, professor of meteorology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and a contributor to the Capital Weather Gang, said the storm pattern had essentially stalled over Ellicott City, the same phenomenon that caused massive flooding in the city of Frederick two weeks ago.

“To say lightning strikes twice is basically what’s happening,” Halverson said.

He said the storm could drop 250mm or so of rain before it wound down. He said he thought the flooding could ultimately be worse than what was seen in Ellicott City in 2016.

Ellicott City sustained severe damage in a July 30, 2016, flash flood that killed two people.