Area's geography means floods brought by storms won't be last

NEIGHBORS

September 20, 1999|By Sally Voris | Sally Voris,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LAST WEEK'S storm, which closed U.S. 1 in Elkridge, will not be the last to cause flooding in our area. Elkridge's history, geography and aging storm-water drainage system converge to create floods when there is a hard rain.

The flood area extends from the bottom of Buttermilk Hill on U.S. 1 and Brumbaugh Street north beyond Levering Avenue almost to the exit ramps leading to the Harbor Tunnel Thruway.

Businesses on the west side of U.S. 1 are hit hardest. Daniel's Restaurant, the Elkridge Laundromat, Haker Auto Sales, Avalon Auto Service, the Amoco station and Commercial Tire have all been affected.

On Sept. 2, two weeks before Hurricane Floyd, a storm dumped several inches of rain on Elkridge. Judy Peddicord, president of the Elkridge Kiwanis Club, described leaving the club's meeting at Daniel's Restaurant about 8 p.m.

"Six to 8 inches of water was running fast across the parking lot," she said. "While we were standing there, a tree came down the road."

The ravine above Daniel's was filled with debris. "They cleaned it all out," Peddicord said, and she added flooding has been less severe.

Carol Haker and her husband, George, have moved vehicles off their car lot twice in the past two weeks, she said, when flood-water reached the hubcaps. The lot is at least 3 feet above the road surface.

Over the Labor Day weekend, Ed Albright, owner of Commercial Tire, and his wife, June, picked up big rocks that had washed into the road in front of their tire store.

Ed's eldest son, Steve, said the water is often 18 to 20 inches deep on U.S. 1 in front of his father's business after a heavy rain.

Another hard rain fell Sept. 9. Steve Albright and his father spotted a woman stranded in a car that was beginning to float in the water.

The Albrights waded into the water, popped the hood of her car, tied a rope around an engine mount -- the bumper was submerged -- and pulled the car to safety with Ed Albright's truck.

The exit ramp of the Harbor Tunnel is within a block of Albright's store. Albright and others met with Mike Johnson, resident maintenance engineer for the State Highway Administration, on Tuesday. Albright says he asked Johnson, "How would you like to have your wife and family in a car with an 18-wheeler behind her hit 20 inches of water?"

Ed Albright has been fighting for 26 years, he says, to have the flooding problem at U.S. 1 and Levering Avenue fixed. Steve Albright said he was told that the storm-water drainage pipes "skinny up" to private property, so the state cannot fix them.

A stream runs down a steep ravine next to Buttermilk Hill. The water flows through a large culvert under Daniel's, travels in the open for about 30 feet and then through a stone culvert in the B & O granite bridge abutment.

A trash screen has been placed in front of the culvert to collect debris. On Thursday, the steel screen collected enough debris to act as a dam.

On the other side of the railroad bridge, next to Haker Auto Sales, another pipe carries the water underground for two blocks and dumps it into a drainage ditch just past Commercial Tire.

The underground pipe has an opening that can hold no more than 12-18 inches of water. In a hard rain, the water backs up and flows out into the street along the stretch of road between Daniel's and Commercial Tire.

Why does Elkridge flood?

Cheryl Simmons, director of the Howard County Natural Resource Conservation Service, emphasizes that many factors contribute to flooding in extraordinary rains.

In old towns such as Ellicott City and Elkridge, she said, buildings such as Daniel's Restaurant were erected closer to streams and rivers than modern codes allow.

And old towns don't have the storm-water management structures that new developments do, she said.

A recent study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers examined storm-water management issues in the Deep Run and Tiber-Hudson watersheds in Elkridge and Ellicott City. Simmons says the Corps would like to create more storm-water management areas that could also serve as habitat for wildlife.

Some think "impervious" surfaces, such as roads, rooftops and parking lots, are contributing to flooding.

According to watershed engineer Jennifer Zielinski, as more roads are paved and buildings built, less rainfall seeps into the ground. More water travels faster to streams and storm drains.

Zielinski works for the Center for Watershed Protection, a nonprofit organization in Ellicott City.

But the structure of the earth on which our towns are built also plays a part. Geologist Michael Ellison, an Ellicott City consultant, says the Patapsco River runs through a valley that is made of rock, including granite, that resists erosion.

The narrow valley does not have an expansive flood plain. When rain falls in the Little Patuxent watershed, Ellison says, the water can spread out into a broad valley. But during a hard rain, the Patapsco River cannot spread -- so it rises.

As the area is developed, more water gets into the river, which rises faster.

Party postponed

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