Flooding leads to one death, water rescues across Washington area

The heavy rains from Wednesday’s storm may have passed, but residual flooding and high winds caused at least one death and additional trouble across the Washington area Thursday. (The Washington Post)
January 31, 2013

Flooding and high winds caused at least one death, along with calls for numerous waters rescues across the Washington area Thursday.

A woman drowned in a low-lying wooded area of Anne Arundel County generally used as a homeless camp, police said. Rising waters overtook the camp near Laurel Fort Meade Road and Laurel Race Track Road, and firefighters retrieved the woman’s body just before 11:30 a.m., said Lt. T.J. Smith, an Anne Arundel police spokesman.

Smith said another person had told the woman, who was apparently homeless, to leave the area because of rising waters about 9:30 a.m., but she did not do so. Smith said police had not identified the woman.

Ernest Moran, who lives in the camp, said about 15 people live in tents at the site and he escaped the rising waters with only his dog and a knapsack. Debris from the tent city was seen floating in the floodwaters from the Patuxent.

Emergency crews also responded to reports of flooded roads and calls for water rescues from across the region.

Laurel city officials encouraged those in homes and businesses north of Main Street to leave voluntarily as officials brace for significant flooding, and also opened a temporary shelter.

Mayor Craig Moe said the reason for the flooding is Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission officials releasing water through various dams to prevent them from breaking. He said he had “some concerns” that more water wasn’t released in anticipation of Wednesday night’s storm.

“I think that’s a question we’re going to have to ask WSSC after the fact,” he said.

WSSC said in a statement that officials “released water from Duckett Dam yesterday; however the amount of rainfall was significantly greater than what was predicted.”

When the Patuxent River enters the Triadelphia Reservoir, the water level is typically 2.4 feet. On Thursday, the WSSC said, that figure was 10.5 feet.

That, in essence, is why officials release water from various dams, causing flooding along the river’s path. If they don’t, officials say, the dams might break.

“When our reservoirs get really, really full, we have to let some of the water out,” WSSC spokesman I.J. Hudson said. “This is what we do when there’s too much water.”

Some Laurel residents, however, appeared unconcerned Thursday afternoon about the possibility of more sever flooding.

On Avondale Street at the entrance to Riverfront Park, several neighbors gathered to snap photos and watch the Patuxent River overtake benches and running paths. The police had been by earlier to tell them they might want to consider evacuating. None planned to leave.

“The highest I have ever seen this water was 1972 during Hurricane Agnes, and it got to the top of the street,” said Walter Boyle, 46, a plumber. “I’m not seeing what the big to-do is.”

Boyle said he had come home from work after neighbors called him about the flooding “just to make sure we had no issues.” He said he expected the water to rise significantly, but not to a degree that would threaten his home.

“We’ve seen it a little worse, and we’ve certainly seen it not as bad,” he said.

Ollie Gilmer, 61, director of operations for a D.C. apartment complex, said he came home after his wife called to say police were going door to door in their neighborhood, warning people about the flood.

“I told her, ‘I’m on my way,’ because she was freaking a little bit,” he said.

When Gilmer arrived at his home at the end of the street closest to the river, he said he found a few feet of water in the back yard, which sits significantly lower than the street itself. Gilmer said he was “not unimpressed, but not worried,” and planned to stay put unless forced to do otherwise.

“I’ve seen it higher,” he said.

Even his wife, Jacqui Gilmer, said she was calmer Thursday afternoon. She said that when she first returned from picking up her son at school to find police on her street, she called her husband “in case I had to make a fast getaway with the kids.” But after he arrived, her worry turned to mild amusement. As her son frolicked nearby in a rain coat, she stepped up to the entrance of the park to snap a picture.

“I’m from England,” she said. “You’d think I’d be used to water.”

In Loudoun County, six people were rescued in five separate incidents from Wednesday afternoon through early Thursday, authorities said.

The first occurred about 6 p.m. Wednesday at Short Hill Road and Silver Brook Lane in Purcellville, where one person was rescued from a vehicle and released at the scene, according to authorities.

Shortly before 10 p.m. Wednesday, multiple rescue crews responded to an SUV that had attempted to drive through high water near Snickersville Turnpike and Hibbs Bridge Road in Purcellville. The SUV was swept downstream, according to the Loudoun sheriff’s office. Several rescue boards were used to pull the driver from the water, and the individual was released at the scene to family members, authorities said.

The rescue incidents continued overnight. About 2:45 a.m. Thursday, a driver attempted to cross a flooded area near Evergreen Mills Road and Belmont Ridge Road; the vehicle was swept off the roadway. Authorities used rope rescue techniques to rescue the driver, who was taken to an area hospital as a precaution, according to the sheriff’s office. About the same time, rescue crews also assisted a driver stranded on the roof of a vehicle on Lime Kiln Road in Leesburg. Crews used a boat to reach the driver, authorities said.

Another rescue occurred about 4:30 a.m. Thursday, when crews responded to two individuals who had attempted to drive a pickup truck through high water on Watson Road in Leesburg, authorities said.

Montgomery County fire and rescue teams responded to several similar situations.

At 8 p.m. Wednesday, five people were rescued from a car that became stranded in high water near a bridge in the 16300 block of Barnesville Road.

Shortly before 8:30 p.m., the occupants of another car stuck in rising water near Frederick and Newcut roads removed themselves from the vehicle and got to safety.

Around midnight, Montgomery crews were dispatched to the 21600 block of Davis Mill Road and the 9900 block of Huntmaster Road, where two cars were stranded. One driver was found on the roof of his SUV. Three people were rescued.

Just after 6 a.m. Thursday, crews responded to three separate incidents. A driver was rescued from a vehicle caught in rising water in the 16800 block of Riffleford Road. In the 1800 block of Brighton Dam Road, a driver was found squatting inside the car; the water had reached ankle-level inside the vehicle and the handles outside. Another driver was rescued from a car in the 14600 block of Berryville Road.

No injuries were reported in any of these incidents.

In the wake of the multiple water rescues, Loudoun and Montgomery authorities reminded residents Thursday to remember the catch phrase, “turn around, don’t drown.”

Drivers are advised never to drive through standing water because it could be deceptively deep, and to avoid driving through areas that are prone to flooding. Two feet of rushing water can carry away most vehicles, including sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks, according to officials in Montgomery.

Loudoun residents can visit www.511virginia.org for up-to-date listings of road closures due to flooding. Officials have also compiled this list of areas in Montgomery that are prone to flooding and high water.

Officials also warned that continuing strong winds could topple trees and branches, blocking roadways across the area. Again, drivers are urged to use caution.

In Frederick County, the National Weather Service says the river will crest at 17.5 feet by early Thursday evening at the Interstate 70 crossing near Frederick. The flood stage there is 16 feet. The predicted crest is considered moderate flooding.

The weather service predicts minor flooding along the Potomac River at Point of Rocks. It says the river will crest at 17.3 feet there by Saturday morning. Flood stage at Point of Rocks is 16 feet.

Rhonda Jackson, a Prince George’s County Emergency Management spokeswoman, said county officials are having regular conference calls about the situation but now believed Laurel to be the “only impacted area.”

“But we’re monitoring it, Jackson said.

In addition to trouble on roadways, people traveling in the skies faced delays Thursday.

While there weren’t delays at Dulles and Reagan National airports, Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport reported delays of up to 45 minutes due to high winds.

Delays were also reported at LaGuardia and JFK airports in New York, which does not bode well for air travel along the East Coast and beyond for the rest of the day. Flight delays at those two airports have a domino effect that disrupts air traffic elsewhere.

Caitlin Gibson, Ashley Halsey III , Dan Morse and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.

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