Historic storm hits over weekend
BERLIN – Extreme flooding and power outages brought Berlin officials and workers from almost every town department out on Saturday and early Sunday to assist hundreds of residents during and after what town officials said was a once-in-every-1,000-years storm.
According to Jane Kreiter, the town’s water resources director, 13.5 inches rain fell on Berlin within 10 hours, making Saturday night’s seemingly endless thunderstorm a unique meteorological event, at least in modern times.
“The older residents in town said this was the worst flood they have ever seen in Berlin,” Town Administrator Tony Carson said.
The rain, accompanied by what seemed to be continuous thunder and lightning well into the night, caused severe flash flooding throughout the Berlin area, leaving motorists stranded and, in some case, in peril.
The Berlin Police Department began to receive numerous calls around 9:30 p.m. that evening from people who were trapped in their vehicles after they stalled in water reaching levels as high as five feet.
With the help of the Berlin Fire Company, the Maryland Natural Resources Police and others, approximately 70 people were rescued from their cars and trucks in and around town.
Emergency units were dispatched to Bay, Flower, West, Main and Williams streets, as well as Route 113 and Route 346. Some of these areas had never experienced problems with flooding, but this deluge changed all that.
Resident Emily Barney was driving to her home at Decatur Farm off Route 113 Saturday night from Route 50, when she mistook one of the few exits that wasn’t blocked to mean that it was passable.
“I just kept going through the water, then my car completely shut off. Water was above my hood and started rising inside my car,” she said. Barney called 911, and was told by the dispatcher to keep a window open for her safety and that rescuers would be sent.
“By the time someone came, the water level was up to my waist. It was the scariest night of my life,” Barney said.
Numerous cars parked on several streets were swept down the roads and ended up being damaged or totaled by water, debris or both.
Many vehicles that were taken by the rush of water on Route 113 south of Burley Street ended up being saved from further damage because of a new guardrail that prevented them from entering much deeper water.
Despite the dangerous suddenness of the storm and its effects, no injuries were reported as of Tuesday. Most people remained relatively safe in their homes, but a handful of residents stayed overnight in Town Hall.
While emergency units rescued trapped drivers throughout the night, Berlin’s Department of Public Works and Electric Department worked to help clear water and restore power to the town.
About 800 buildings, including shops in the commercial district of Berlin, were left without power at some point between 9 p.m. and early Sunday morning.
Using the new overhead fault indicators that emit a high-intensity red strobe if there is a problem with the line, the Electric Department quickly located a utility pole on Buckingham Lane and West Street that had been struck by lightning. Power was fully restored to the town by 11:30 a.m. Sunday.
Because Berlin is one of the few municipalities in Maryland that has its own electric department, the town was able to respond immediately instead of being forced to send a request for aid, Carson said.
By Sunday, all water and vehicles were removed from the roads.
“People were out shopping. It looked like a normal Sunday,” Carson said.
Some residents who were affected by the storm used the public comments segment of the mayor and council meeting on Monday to express their displeasure with the town.
Whether the issue was debris damaging cars and yards, thousands of dollars of water damage in homes or the account of one woman who was stuck in her home with three children and water up to her waist, there were numerous complaints to Berlin officials on the basis that not enough was done to prevent the flooding.
“I don’t think there is any system we could build to accommodate that amount of rainfall,” Berlin Mayor Gee Williams replied.
The mayor and council members did say, however, that they would look into receiving federal aid for those without strong financial backing. It was also mentioned that on Sept. 5 for no cost, the town would pick up debris from residents who place unwanted items their front yard.
As to the town’s preparedness, Williams said he has been trying to create a stormwater utility department for the past few years. With such a department, town employees would work year-round to improve stormwater drainage around town.
Town officials estimate that the cost of the department would be about $5 a month per property, a price that residents have resisted.
Regardless of the possibility of a stormwater department being formed, Berlin was asked by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science last year to conduct a study on the town’s stormwater needs. Once the study is complete in late fall, Berlin will have a list of all areas ranked by priority.
Though the list would provide a clear course for the town to take, it would still take many years to make major changes in stormwater flow because of the millions of dollars required to do the work.
“Realistically, once the cost estimate is determined, we would be able to make significant improvements within a five-to 10-year period,” Carson said.