Powerful storms that turned day into night and streets into rapids inundated the Baltimore area yesterday afternoon, with a deluge of more than 4 inches of rain in some areas and flash flooding that prompted several rescues along the Jones Falls and other swollen tributaries.
No injuries were reported, but the effects of the severe thunderstorms were numerous and awe-inspiring.
A portion of the historic Meadow Mill building along Jones Falls in the Woodberry neighborhood was flooded, and nearly 30 cars in the parking lot were almost submerged. Farther south along the falls, firefighters rescued a man and woman from a vehicle stranded in rising waters -- one of numerous such incidents reported.
A mechanic in Catonsville barely escaped serious injury if not death. Bob Clausen was wrapping up for the day when the roof of his garage collapsed, nearly trapping him under a pile of cinder blocks, twisted metal and large chunks of wood.
"I was in there working on a car, and I got out without a scratch," said Clausen, who owns Bob's Auto at 6323 Baltimore National Pike. "I was about 12 feet from the door [when the roof started to fall]. My first thought was that we got hit by lightning. It sounded like a thunderbolt exploded over my head."
The storms turned the sky a dark charcoal by 5 p.m. and was gone in time for the scheduled baseball game at Oriole Park -- where the field has an elaborate and efficient drainage system.
Not so the Jones Falls. Yesterday evening, floodwaters the color of old coffee surged toward the Inner Harbor near Pier 6, rushing under Pratt Street and a pedestrian walkway and carrying debris from the storms -- plastic bottles, foam cups, wood debris, logs and part of a tree trunk, even a basketball.
At the Northwest Ice Rink in Mount Washington, staff surveyed a muddy mess of slush and chased off a terrified beaver, another victim of the storms.
"It will be at least two weeks before we open the kiddie pool again," said Colette Kelly, assistant manager of the nearby Meadowbrook Swim Club, where flood waters turned the children's pool a dirty brown. The main pool was not affected, she said.
Thousands of homes and businesses lost power in the storms, and a peak of 22,000 were reported out at 9 p.m.
The National Weather Service began issuing severe thunderstorm warnings for the area at 2:38 p.m. as storms approached St. Mary's County in Southern Maryland. It was the start of a rough few hours.
Just before 3 p.m., a storm warning was issued for Anne Arundel County. Forecasters said they saw "some wind rotation" on radar images and recommended that people near its path find shelter.
Observers in the control tower at Baltimore-Washington International Airport reported seeing a funnel cloud just before 3 p.m., according to Nikole Listemaa, a meteorologist at the weather service forecast office in Sterling, Va. "There were no official reports of any touchdown," she said. "No other funnel clouds were spotted, to our knowledge."
Rain gauges reported various amounts of precipitation: 4 inches at Baltimore's Leakin Park, 4.4 inches at Westview in Baltimore County, and 1.9 inches in Ellicott City.
Retiree Lloyd Haag reported 5 inches of rainfall in his improvised measuring device -- a coffee can set level on the lawn of his home along Western Run Drive in Northwest Baltimore. "It squatted on us," he said of the storm. "Western Run is roaring."
The Mount Washington neighborhood of the city witnessed some of the most impressive flooding. Stores and businesses along the Jones Falls closed early to allow clients, shoppers and employees to get out before the waters started to rise.
"It's like the Chesapeake right now," said Miles Charles, a shift manager at the Whole Foods Market in Mount Washington Mill Business Center. "Water's all over the place. I've got to make sure everything is tightened up."
Light rail commuters who alighted at the Mount Washington station at the peak of the storms had to wade to their cars on the park-and-ride lot, some of them discarding expensive dress shoes and heels to venture into water that was at least a foot deep in areas.
Ed Kurland, 43, of Mount Washington was driving out of the parking lot when his Toyota Camry stalled in deep water.
"This is not funny," he said as he tried to start the car so he could allow other vehicles to pass. "I can't even get my key out of the ignition."
"I was in jury duty all day and I come home to this?" Kurland said, laughing despite his predicament. "I made $15 today for this? Can I sue the city for this?"
The fast-moving storms also caused significant damage in Baltimore County, said Elise Armacost, spokeswoman for its fire department, and kept water rescue teams busy as they went from call to call to assist motorists trapped in or on top of cars.
"They're still out on calls right now," Armacost said about 8 p.m. "They've been all over the place. As soon as one call is cleared, they'd get another call."