Twenty-five years ago this month, Hurricane Agnes triggered floodwaters from the Patapsco River that swallowed downtown Ellicott City, and Howard County officials are committed to preventing such widespread devastation from occurring again.
The county still can't stop floods. But the year after the worst flood of this century killed seven people and caused about $20 million in damage to the Ellicott City area, county officials came up with a system to provide earlier notice of flooding.
These days, the alert system has become a regular part of life for residents and merchants in the flood-prone downtown district.
The alerts are generally lauded by those who receive them, though they are sounded often enough that some have become a bit blase about them.
"I live and work on Main Street, so I hear about those warning calls all the time," said Marc Lund, who works at the Margaret Smith Gallery in the flood plain but confesses he doesn't react quickly when he hears the flood alerts.
"Now I don't even think about them," he says. "Water rises slowly."
On average this century, Ellicott City has been threatened by a serious flood about once every decade.
But flooding threatens the area often enough that alerts are issued about once every six to eight months.
The system essentially involves county firefighters calling homes and businesses in the flood plain when the county's rivers and creeks reach certain levels.
The first calls go to about 39 homes and businesses along Main Street most vulnerable to flooding. More calls -- to dozens of others -- may follow.
If the waters keep rising, advisories may be issued -- to begin moving belongings and goods to higher floors, sandbag basements or evacuate altogether.
"Agnes' devastation prodded the county into a better alert system," says Elizabeth A. Calia, an engineer with the county's Public Works Department who handles flood matters.
"Howard County has gone beyond what the state requires. We aren't light years ahead of everyone else, but we're better."
The alert system was installed two years before the waters produced by the next hurricane hit Ellicott City in 1975.
In that storm, no one was killed, and there was little property damage, despite a flood that rose above the tops of some doorways.
Part of the system was last used in November, when 3 inches of rain fell in 12 hours.
County firefighters called the president of the Ellicott City Business Association, who then spread the word that a flood might be pending.
Merchants such as Rebecca Weber, who owns Sheppard Art Gallery on Main Street, heeded the alert and began anxiously monitoring her framing business's basement, which serves as a workroom and storage area.
"The workroom is right on the bank of the river. I had to keep watching to see if the water had reached the windows," says Weber, who also lives on Main Street. "I was thinking back to about two years ago when I had to sandbag the basement during a heavy storm."
It was a false alarm -- the most recent of quite a few through the years, say merchants and residents of the valley that's hemmed in by the Patapsco River, its tributaries and a wall of granite.
"It's not often that we get a whole lot of rain, but it's better to be safe than sorry," Weber says.
Get people out
Such inconveniences are outweighed by the advantages of the alert system, says Richard Hitchens, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
"Of course, people could be notified when a creek rises rapidly without it reaching a flood level. We can see that happening," Hitchens said.
"The point is to get people out and close roads before a catastrophe hits."
Among all natural disasters, floods -- particularly common in this region -- cause the most deaths and the most damage overall.
Nationwide, the National Weather Service estimates, floods cause 200 deaths a year, drive 300,000 people from their homes and damage or destroy $2 billion in property.
To prevent that, Calia is on the front lines of Howard's flood-alert system. She monitors the county's water levels -- sometimes visiting county river and creek basins but mostly monitoring readings on a computer in her office.
The readings are from rain and stream gauges placed around the county.
When the streams reach certain levels -- generally, after an inch of rain falls in two hours -- the gauges send a radio signal to the county's Emergency Operation Center in the basement of the George Howard county office building in Ellicott City.
The alert system then comes into play -- with the goal of giving Ellicott City at least six to eight hours' notice of flooding, officials say.
No such warning was given before the flooding from Hurricane Agnes, which began June 22, 1972.
"Ellicott City has a certain charm, but I feel like it deceived me during the flood," Alda Baptiste, owner of a bridal and formal wear shop on Main Street, says of the devastation brought by Agnes.