What happened: More than 8-inches of rain fell in a few hours in historic Ellicott City, Maryland on May 27. A confluence of geography and development makes the area, which was waterlogged from recent rainfall, prone to rapid flooding. Video showed fast-moving water rushing over and past the second floor of buildings on Main Street.
Fire and EMS departments, as well as swift water rescue teams, from throughout the region responded. 911 call recordings tell harrowing real-life stories of people stranded on upper floors of buildings, the streets below them a raging river.
This was Ellicott City's second "1,000-year flood" in the past two years. In July 2016, the same Main Street of the historic community was devastated by similar flooding. Parts of town had just finished rebuilding before this most recent flooding.
Top takeaways for swift water response
Flooding has become an increasingly common response for all-hazard fire departments. We need to take a training posture that focuses additional efforts on swift water responses. Learning from Ellicott City's events is a good step to prepare personnel, acquire equipment and improve rescue SOPs.
Fast moving water, 10-feet or deeper, flooded an occupied city street. Swift water and other boat rescue teams need to be fully aware of the underwater terrain they're expected to navigate; remembering that swift water rescues don't always occur in traditional rivers and streams.
HCDFRS Chief Butler's all-hazard reminders
I spoke with Chief John Butler, Howard County (Md.) Department of Fire and Rescue Services. Butler was also the chief during the 2016 flooding incident. Chief Butler reminds us all to:
- Demand a culture of safety and a culture of learning.
- Train hard and train always, especially for high-consequence, low-frequency scenarios.
- Accept that you lead an all-hazards department and train like it.
- Prepare for the uncomfortable and the unforeseen. Don't only do what you want to do or like to do.
- Believe rare events will occur under your command. Never be complacent about the likelihood of a 1,000-year flood, 500-year wildland fire or 100-year tornado in your response area.
- Invest, aggressively and progressively, in your team's training and equipment.
- Embrace swift water rescue innovation and technology.
- Learn about shoring, building stabilization, towing, rigging, vehicle recovery from waterways and underwater vehicle searches from other institutions and disciplines.
Ellicott City was nearly destroyed - twice - by flooding. Amazingly, only one person was killed during last month’s flood. As the floodwaters receded, fire and rescue teams continued to help ensure gas lines and electric services were secured and that all affected buildings were searched. Recovery will take years.
Our response preparedness and training must be perpetual.
Additional water rescue resources: