Deluge Washes Away Area's Drought
Rainstorm Causes Flooding, Damage

By David A. Fahrenthold and Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

So much for that drought.

The Washington region appeared to have officially ended its 11-month spell of dry weather yesterday -- but residents and local officials soon found themselves facing the opposite problem. Instead of too little water, they had too much, as a soaking rainstorm flooded roads, battered boats and opened a sinkhole that swallowed back yards in Prince George's County.

About four inches of rain fell on most parts of the region, as the remnants of a furious Great Plains thunderstorm finally drifted toward the Atlantic coast.

There were no tornadoes, such as those that killed 22 people over the weekend as the system crossed Oklahoma, Missouri and Georgia. But there was a whopping amount of rain, more than seven inches in one part of Calvert County.

The storm left thousands without power, closed schools, and forced the shutdown of government buildings and courts in Prince George's.

Weather forecasters said the weather today would be clear with temperatures in the low 70s.

The good news hard to see in yesterday's mess was that the region's troubles with parched soil and thirsty trees finally seemed to be near an end.

"What drought?" said David Miskus, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center. He said the combined rainfall from this storm and another late last week meant that in the mid-Atlantic, the drought "is greatly improved, if not alleviated."

The region's problems with dry weather stretched back to June, as a pocket of heavy drought in the Southeast gradually extended north. By late July, part of the area had drought conditions classified as "severe."

Those conditions had begun to improve after rainstorms this spring, and by early April, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments had lifted its official drought watch.

Any lingering doubts were washed away this past week. First came a storm Thursday night and Friday morning that caused a tornado in Stafford County. Then this storm soaked the area again.

At Dulles International Airport, more than six inches of rain has fallen since May 6. That's enough, meteorologists said, to moisten soil, refill groundwater reserves and swell the Potomac River's flow to more than 10 times its median level for this time of year.

That news was cold, damp comfort across the region yesterday. The storm damaged buildings and even threatened lives on a path from Northern Virginia to the Delaware coast.

One of the most dramatic scenes in the Washington area was in Camp Springs, where a sinkhole 10 feet deep opened up in a residential neighborhood. Resident Daniel Walsh was awakened about 6:30 yesterday morning by firefighters banging on his door.

He had no idea what was going on until they directed him to his back yard -- or what was left of it.

"I was stunned," Walsh said. "I just kept looking at the firefighters and this hole."

The sinkhole -- about 20 feet wide, 10 feet deep and in some spots more than half the length of a football field -- wiped out Walsh's and two of his neighbors' back yards. The entire porch of his next door neighbor's house fell into the hole, swallowing up the grill, air conditioner and awning.

At another neighbor's house, a sundeck and carport were supported only by exposed beams, which looked like broken toothpicks, and were slowly shifting into the hole.

County officials said they thought rain was the cause of the sinkhole but were not sure why it formed there. They told Walsh that he can remain in his house, but he said he is a little nervous about the hole.

In Chesapeake Beach in Calvert County, a strong gust of wind drove a partially constructed house into a neighboring residence about 10:30 p.m. Sunday, collapsing both structures and leaving two people briefly trapped inside.

"I heard what I thought was lightning. Then I looked out the window and I didn't see the house anymore," said Diana Fischer, who lives next door. She was worried the debris might slide into her house.

"I don't even know if my house is going to be here when I get back," she said.

In the Atlantic Ocean, one crew member was killed and another injured when the research vessel Russell W. Peterson foundered 14 miles off Rehoboth Beach, Del.

The Coast Guard had rescued both crew members from the boat, which had been studying migratory bird routes for a company seeking to build a windmill farm. One of the two was pronounced dead at a hospital in Salisbury, Md., the Associated Press said. His name was not released.

A dozen U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen on the Varsity Offshore Sailing Team and two team coaches aboard a 49-foot sailboat were rescued by the Coast Guard near Annapolis when strong winds broke the vessel's mast early yesterday.

The Coast Guard was called about midnight when the Mameluke became "beset by weather" on the West River, said Petty Officer John Edwards.

A Coast Guard rescue boat picked them up and took them to Annapolis, he said.

As of yesterday evening, more than 15,000 customers were without power in the region, mainly in the Maryland suburbs. Maryland officials banned unloaded tractor trailers from crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge because of concerns about high winds.

A Prince George's spokesman said a pond in front of the county administration building in Upper Marlboro overflowed its banks for the first time in 30 years and flooded Governor Oden Bowie Drive. Water also covered roads leading to the nearby county courthouse. Workers at both buildings were sent home.

In Virginia, some of the worst disruptions were in Loudoun County. There, authorities reported 26 road closures and restrictions because of flooding or high water as of 2:15 p.m. yesterday. Among the problem areas, the sheriff's office said, was heavily traveled Route 15 at Goose Creek Bridge. Many secondary roads were also impassable.

In the District, City Lights Public Charter School in Northeast Washington sustained "substantial damage" and will be closed all week, said Nona Mitchell Richardson, spokeswoman for the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

The rainfall also forced the postponement of a portion of yesterday's high school athletic schedule.

Schools in Charles, Fauquier and Culpeper counties, which were closed yesterday because of flooding and power outages, were scheduled to reopen today. Individual schools in Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Calvert counties that had been without power are also expected to reopen.

The news was not as good for the Southeastern United States, which remains in the grip of the drought. Officials in Georgia and Tennessee said yesterday that the storm brought buckets of rainfall but, after more than a year of severely dry conditions, not enough.

Staff writers Ruben Castaneda, Megan Greenwell, V. Dion Haynes, Hamil R. Harris, Rosalind S. Helderman, Raymond McCaffrey, Dan Morse, Micah Pollack, Brigid Schulte, John Wagner, Eric M. Weiss and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.

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