LAUREL — City officials say they may pursue legal action against the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission after flooding on parts of Main Street caused thousands of dollars in damages in late April. “I am not pleased with everything that has happened here,” Mayor Craig Moe said to nearly 30 people who attended a public hearing […]
LAUREL — City officials say they may pursue legal action against the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission after flooding on parts of Main Street caused thousands of dollars in damages in late April.
“I am not pleased with everything that has happened here,” Mayor Craig Moe said to nearly 30 people who attended a public hearing and informational session at Partnership Hall Aug. 14. “The insurance company has been notified, and we may file suit.”
Jim Neustadt, director of communications and community relations for WSSC, said he has not heard about the suit yet.
“To my knowledge, there has been no suit filed,” Neustadt said. “I have no first-hand knowledge about it.”
Neustadt, however, did say there has been “an ongoing situation.”
“We think we have worked pretty well with the City of Laurel, because we have a common interest, and we have common responsibilities,” Neustadt said.
The city claims it sustained between $250,000 and $350,000 in damages April 30, 2014, according to a preliminary damage assessment.
On that day, WSSC issued a Level Two dam emergency and opened up all seven gates on the T. Howard Duckett dam, releasing 6,000 cubic feet of water per second and flooding properties in the city, said Martin Flemion, deputy city administrator.
WSSC officials said opening the gates was necessary to relieve pressure on the dam. After heavy rains forced water over the edge of a construction seam, engineers feared the flow of water could erode soil around the buttress of the dam and compromise the stability of the entire structure, Flemion said.
The decision to open the gates caused citywide panic, Moe said, and officials had to relocate more than 130 city residents from their homes and apartments to Robert J. DiPietro Community Center on the 7900 block of Cypress Street in the early hours of May 1.
“When we were notified, we had 15 minutes before the first wave of water would reach Laurel,” Flemion said. “It’s safe to say my heart was in my throat.”
Neustadt said WSSC followed standard protocol for notifying the city in the event of a Level Two emergency.
“The protocol said you need to move, and you need to move quickly,” Neustadt said. “They claim we did not let them know soon enough, but we let them know as quickly as we could.”
According to WSSC, engineers lowered the dam levels the Sunday prior to the flood event in anticipation of the heavy rainfall, but could not foresee the issue of water trickling through the construction seam.
In addition, it is not unusual for the city to experience flooding during heavy rain, Neustadt said.
“[Laurel] is a floodplain, and that is what happens in a floodplain,” he said. “Unfortunately, that is the risk people take when they live in floodplain.”
But city administrators say WSSC needs to do more to protect the city.
“[Flooding] has the potential to do a lot of destruction, and a lot of loss of life,” Flemion said.
No lives were lost in May even though more than 30 residents refused to leave their homes, Flemion said, but a handful of businesses suffered damages.
Officials have not yet completed the cost estimate of damage sustained by private facilities and private property in the city, but they anticipate thousands of dollars.
“WSSC’s efforts were successful,” Flemion said, “but we paid for that success.”
Among the businesses negatively affected are The Riverview Apartments, Fred Frederick’s Chrysler Plymouth show room and body shop, AAMCO Transmissions, a Quality Inn, the American Legion, Laurel Car Rental and a Howard County U-Haul business.
At Fred Frederick’s, rising water levels flooded cars, causing thousands of dollars in damages to the vehicle merchandise.
The flooding topped the southbound U.S. Route 1 Bridge over the Patuxent River and reached the front steps of the American Legion Post 60, something Flemion, a longtime Laurel resident, said he had not seen since Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972.
Now, in the aftermath of the flood, downed trees and debris downstream of the dam, called snags, further slow the flow of water and create conditions for more frequent and severe flooding.
In combination with more aggressive and frequent summer rainstorms in the region, the conditions are a perfect storm for a disaster, Flemion said.
“Any storms in the northwest are dumping a lot of water in the Patuxent River Watershed, and, ultimately, it gets to the T. Howard Duckett Dam,” Flemion said. “We have a lot of concerns during these storms.”
Removing snags is tedious and expensive, Flemion said, and the city has already spent about $55,000 to remove them. More than 25 snags remain, he estimated, and the city lacks the financial ability to remove them. WSSC has not provided funds to fix the snags.
“WSSC refuses to acknowledge responsibility for the damage,” Flemion said. “They’re not going to lift a finger to help.”
Neustadt said there are no current plans to help with the removal of the snags, because WSSC is not responsible for what happens downstream.
“I think people keep forgetting that this is a source water dam,” he said. “This is not a flood control dam. And this is a dam that, in many cases, has prevented flooding in Laurel.”
A cost estimate for the removal of the debris is still in the works.
Helen Jones, president of the Oaks North Condo Association, said the flooding caused the community’s flood insurance to spike 300 percent.
“People aren’t able to sell their condos,” Jones said. “Most banks don’t want to touch that.”
Flemion and Moe said they want to see a revision of WSSC policy so Laurel and other downstream cities and towns are protected from the company’s decisions.
Michael McLaughlin, a longtime Laurel resident serving on the city’s Environmental Affairs Committee, said he wants a change in WSSC’s leadership, noting current leaders did not attend the meeting.
“I think WSSC’s response is shameful,” McLaughlin said.
The dam, just west of the city on the Patuxent River, creates the Rocky Gorge Reservoir, which the WSSC maintains along with the Brighton Dam in Brookeville to provide drinking water to approximately 600,000 people. WSSC currently classifies the dam as a drinking water source,
The city wants to change the dam’s classification so WSSC will face more accountability.
Neustadt said the classification is, and will remain, for source water, not for flood control.
“[Duckett] Dam was built for source water for the area,” he said. “Flooding in Laurel occurs even when WSSC does not release water. Just look at last week, there was flooding in Laurel, and do you know how much water we released from the dam? None.”
The WSSC is required by law to maintain three feet of freeboard, or space in which the water can rise before spilling over the top of the dam.
City leaders want that freeboard to be increased to six feet to give them more breathing room between heavy rains and a release of floodwater.
Flemion said the city is reaching out to the county and to the state for assistance.