By Alec MacGillis and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 29, 2006
The historic rain that battered the Washington area claimed its first flooding victims, forced additional evacuations and endangered a dam yesterday, even as the weather front finally released its stubborn grip on the region.
The toll from the nearly four-day deluge was only starting to come into focus. Three people drowned in Frederick County, and two teenagers were missing and presumed dead from rain-swollen creeks. More than 2,000 people were evacuated from their homes in Montgomery County, where officials worried that a dam would fail. The rain also caused tens of millions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses.
Hydrological totals tell the story of what the region endured. Since the start of the weekend, 13.1 inches of rain has fallen in parts of the area. The series of storms broke the 24-hour, 48-hour and one-week records for rain at Reagan National Airport, the National Weather Service reported.
The sunny skies that prevailed for most of the day signaled that the front that stalled here had at last moved up the coast, where it was forcing the evacuations yesterday of more than 200,000 people in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and New York. Rivers in those states were still rising last night, washing out roads and bridges and trapping scores of people. At least four deaths in Pennsylvania and three in New York were blamed on the storm.
Forecasters said the Washington area is returning to a more normal summer weather pattern, with the possibility of isolated showers or thunderstorms over the next couple of days. They popped up in spots yesterday.
The tropical air mass that hung over the area and caused the downpours has moved out and is being replaced by drier air from the northwest.
Several federal office buildings, the American History and Natural History museums and the Smithsonian Castle will remain closed today as workers continue to clean up. The National Archives and the downtown headquarters of the Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service are closed for the rest of the week.
For many, yesterday was fairly normal compared with earlier in the week. That gave officials the chance to start trying to assess the long-term impact of the record rain. Such an assessment won't be easy, given the duration of the rains and the breadth of the impact, from thousands of flooded basements and cars to ruined crops to several lost days of business for several major District institutions.
"We're not even close to being able to calculate financial damages," said Ed McDonough, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. "Unlike a hurricane or a tropical storm, where it's in and out in 24 hours or less and then you go out and assess the damage, this has been going on for four or five days now."
To take the first step in securing federal aid, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) declared a statewide emergency yesterday. Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who visited a shelter in Wheaton yesterday, was deciding last night whether to declare a statewide emergency, a spokesman said. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) declared a state of emergency in the District on Tuesday night but allowed it to expire yesterday.
"We were concerned that another 4--6 inches of rain last night could have made an already bad situation truly scary," Williams said in a written statement. "Fortunately, and unexpectedly, the weather took a turn for the better and gave us a day filled with sun, allowing us to dig out and residents to dry out."
In Fairfax County, damage was estimated at more than $11 million, much of it in the Arlington Terrace neighborhood along Cameron Run in the Huntington section, said county Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D). Connolly said the county will ask the Army Corps of Engineers to study whether the nearby excavation of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge may have worsened flooding, as residents have alleged. Bridge officials have ruled out the possibility.
On Maryland's Eastern Shore, damage was estimated at $60 million in Dorchester County alone, said its sheriff, James Phillips Jr. Twenty-five washed-out roads in the county remained closed yesterday, and 33 others were damaged. In nearby Caroline County, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele toured damage in Federalsburg.
Alexandria officials were still guarding against the chance of problems in Old Town, where the highest waters of the rain-swollen Potomac are expected to make their way past tonight between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m., with high tide just after midnight. Forecasters yesterday played down the risk of Potomac flooding, saying the crest moving down the river was somewhat lower than feared. Not taking any chances, some Old Town businesses had sandbags in place.
The National Weather Service said it expected that the river might barely reach the top of its banks at the foot of Wisconsin Avenue NW in Georgetown a few minutes before midnight tonight.
Moderate flooding was anticipated on the Susquehanna River below the Conowingo Dam in Harford and Cecil counties, the Weather Service said.
The rains took their steepest toll in Frederick County, which was one of the few parts of the region to get continued heavy rainfall late Tuesday.
Three people were swept to their deaths Tuesday night east of Myersville, between Frederick city and Hagerstown. Jesse R. Haulsee, 24, his wife, Angelia S. Haulsee, 29, and a friend, Eric C. Zepp, 19, abandoned their car near the town of Ellerton and tried to wade through waist-high water to his mother's house about a half-mile away along Route 17, where the Haulsees' 2-year-old daughter had been staying, according to witnesses and the Frederick County sheriff's office.
The two-lane highway had become a small river when Middle Creek, a tributary of Catoctin Creek that runs parallel to the road, flooded around 8:30 p.m.
The driver of a pickup gave the Haulsees and Zepp a lift and continued south on Route 17. Soon, though, the Haulsees and Zepp left the pickup's bed. Authorities said it was not clear whether they were swept out or tried to swim.
Also in Frederick County, rescue crews searched for two high school students who were missing after exploring a rain-swollen creek Tuesday evening at the Carroll County line. Late yesterday, authorities declared it a recovery effort, indicating that the two boys from the small town of Ladiesburg were presumed dead.
The boys, Michael White, 14, and Thomas Plunkard, 16, were last seen at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, when they left their homes to explore Little Pipe Creek in Keymar. Authorities said they believe the boys went swimming and were washed away.
When the boys failed to return home, Michael's father went looking for them at the creek and found his son's bicycle and both boys' clothing, except their underwear, at the bank of the creek near Route 194.
He then called 911, and rescue crews searched for the boys during the storm until it became too treacherous. They resumed early yesterday with a helicopter and 80 searchers accompanied by dogs. The currents in the creek were so strong at midday yesterday that one of the rescue boats capsized, injuring a man.
The disappearance of the two boys, who were best friends and students at Walkersville High School, shook the community. Dozens of friends and family members gathered at the creek.
A classmate, Amanda Renner, 16, said the boys enjoyed paintball, riding dirt bikes and fishing for catfish.
Michael has worked part time at the McDonald's in nearby Walkersville, where his mother, Cheryl White, is the manager and has worked since the restaurant opened 17 years ago. Charlotte Masser, an assistant manager whom Michael called "Grandma," described him as well dressed and courteous, willing to help out with even the most undesirable tasks, like cleaning the restrooms. "He always had a smile," she said. "He was just one remarkable, lovable boy."
In western Virginia, the Associated Press reported, searchers found the body yesterday of an 8-year-old girl swept away on Tuesday in a flooded Alleghany County creek. The body of Nikki Godbold was found about 1:30 p.m. just over a mile from where she disappeared in Dunlap Creek.
In Montgomery County, officials were still worried last night about the possible failure of the dam at the southern tip of Lake Needwood near Rockville, where the water level came within a few feet of overflowing Tuesday night. County Chief Administrative Officer Bruce Romer ordered an evacuation early yesterday for people in low-lying areas south of the lake.
Police officers and firefighters were dispatched to bang on doors. Most residents in the nearly 1,200 households left their homes. Roughly 130 people refused to leave, and 178 residences were unoccupied, county officials said. Some evacuees sought temporary shelter with friends and relatives, while nearly 420 were at shelters set up at nearby schools. A handful who left their homes with pets in tow were taken to the Montgomery fairgrounds.
State and county engineers worked furiously yesterday to plug a half-dozen small leaks at the base of the earthen dam, which is 426 feet long and 65 feet high. The water level at the lake, which was 22 feet above normal, engulfed a boathouse and a large parking lot. The dam is considered among the state's most hazardous because so many people live in flood-prone areas to the south.
Romer said last night that residents would not be allowed to return home until today at the earliest. He said the dam is in stable condition, but that could change. The lake is being drained slowly, but engineers fear that water pressure could cause enough erosion to rupture the dam, which could leave hundreds of houses under water.
A county spokeswoman said at 11 p.m. that the condition of the dam would be reassessed this morning.
Elsewhere in the region, the focus yesterday moved to recovering from damage already done.
In Fairfax's Arlington Terrace, one of the region's worst-hit neighborhoods, some sense of normalcy returned. Generators pumped water out of soggy basements and provided light to dank interiors still cut off the power grid. Washing machines, mattresses and other mud-stained debris were piled neatly in front of homes. Volunteers are being urged to come to the area tomorrow to help with the cleanup, Fairfax Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) told residents at a meeting.
Still, most knew hard times were ahead.
"Everything gets a little better and a little worse each day," said Rick Record, 53, a management consultant, who was hosing off the sidewalk in front of a neighbor's home yesterday afternoon.
The water damage he thought had been limited to his basement had begun seeping into the floorboards of the main floor, he said. Many of his neighbors learned that their flood and homeowners insurance wouldn't cover the kind of damage they had suffered. The good news: "It's not raining today," he said.