Hurricane leaves trail of hassles

Fallen trees close streets, cut power to 30,000 customers

`It's a big mess'

Rising water worries Main Street businesses in Ellicott City

September 17, 1999|By Alice Lukens and Nancy A. Youssef | Alice Lukens and Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

Howard County didn't bear the brunt of Hurricane Floyd, but the storm left its imprint nevertheless.

High wind and heavy rain closed 200 county streets and intersections yesterday, especially in the more densely populated eastern part of the county. Downed trees knocked out power to thousands of homes and damaged at least two homes, one on Kit Kat Road in Elkridge and the other on Gorman Road in North Laurel. Rising river water threatened businesses on Main Street in Ellicott City.

County schools were closed, night meetings were canceled, and numerous people were let off work early to hole up at home or go puddle-jumping in flooded streets and yards.

U.S. 1 received the most damage, and segments were shut at times. Interstate 70 at St. John's Road was closed in both directions for a short while after a tree fell across the highway. At any given time, 40 roads were closed, officials estimated.

At the peak of the power outage, about 5: 15 p.m., 30,419 Howard County customers were without power, according to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

Despite the havoc, fire and rescue officials seemed unimpressed by the storm.

"This is manageable," said Maj. Jeff Spaulding of the Howard County Police Department. Fire and rescue officials said no deaths or injuries were reported. The one designated shelter, at Long Reach High School in Columbia, wasn't used.

But county residents -- those with damaged homes, or cars marooned in water, or businesses perched above the raging Tiber-Hudson tributary of the Patapsco on Main Street in Ellicott City -- were not so indifferent.

"It's a big mess," said Robert K. Downey, who had to abandon his car on U.S. 1 in Elkridge because it got stuck in water up to his fender. "I moved from Florida to get away from this kind of weather, but look what we have here. It's crazy."

The police received 171 calls yesterday morning and afternoon from people concerned about the storm. Most of the early calls were for flooded roads, police said; as the rain tapered off and the wind picked up in the early afternoon, more calls were received for downed trees and wires.

Heavy rain

As of 4 p.m. yesterday, the eastern part of the county had received 5 inches of rain and the western part 3 inches. Officials predicted river levels would continue to rise slowly until about 7 p.m.

Richard Taylor, vice president of the Ellicott City Business Association, spent much of the day out in the rain monitoring the Tiber-Hudson, which runs under the business district of Ellicott City and feeds into the Patapsco River. The normally quiet tributary flooded basements of businesses and threatened to flood the first floors of restaurants and shops.

Normally 1 1/2 feet deep, the tributary was 6 feet deep yesterday at about 4 p.m., said Deputy Chief John Frank of the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue. He said it would be considered a flood at 8 1/2 feet.

Dennis Martin, owner of Main Street Blues, was worried mid-afternoon that Floyd would flood the first floor of his bar and restaurant. The storm had invaded the cellar, he said. He canceled the band scheduled for the night and anxiously monitored the weather on a big-screen television in the bar.

"If it gets up another foot and a half, it's going to get the floor wet in the dining room," he said, adding that he wasn't doing anything to prevent it because "there's nothing you can do."

Holding down the fort

Howard County State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon sent her employees home in staggered shifts after 2: 30 p.m. She said she wanted them to have a chance to deal with issues at home stemming from heavy rain and other problems.

"People were getting anxious," McLendon said. "I wanted to make a reasonable accommodation."

After many employees had left, McLendon found herself answering phones at the office's front desk.

"Good afternoon, state's attorney's office," McLendon answered one caller -- and then transferred the call into oblivion by accident.

Michael Dorsey, deputy chief from the county's Department of Fire and Rescue, said Floyd was no bigger than many rainstorms to hit the area. In fact, he said, a similar storm hit last year. But because of all the hype surrounding Floyd, he said county officials nevertheless set up an Emergency Operations Center in the basement office of the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

The windowless Emergency Operations Center was staffed by about 20 people, mostly agency leaders, including the fire and police chiefs. County Executive James N. Robey stopped by twice. About 100 fire and police officials were scattered around the county, patrolling streets. Thirty volunteers assisted.

Inside the center, two rows of anxious call-takers sat before two television sets -- tuned to the Weather Channel and CNN -- and three boards and a map on which officials marked road closings and power failures. Illuminated red pins signified closed roads; orange ones showed fallen trees. By the end of the day, the eastern side of the map was well lighted.

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