LAUREL, Md. (CBSDC/AP) — Floodwaters from the Patuxent River washed away a homeless camp and led to the apparent drowning death of a woman Thursday.
Heavy rains forced officials to open the dam gates on Patuxent River reservoirs, prompting the temporary evacuation of hundreds.
Anne Arundel County police said the unidentified woman died in the homeless camp in Maryland City, just across from Laurel Park racetrack. The body was found about 11:25 a.m. Thursday in a wooded area at Route 198 and Laurel Racetrack Road where homeless people live in tents. The death apparently occurred before dams were opened on the Patuxent River, Lt. T.J. Smith said.
Police said a 911 call was received about a body floating in the water. Firefighters were already on the scene and retrieved the body from the rising waters. Authorities say a passer-by told the woman to leave the area between 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Wednesday because it was not safe.
The victim was believed to have been homeless.
Ernest Moran, who lives in the camp, said about 15 people live in tents at the site and he escaped the rising waters with only his dog and a knapsack. Debris from the tent city was seen floating in the floodwaters from the Patuxent.
“It was a swamp” when he woke up Thursday morning, Moran said, adding he expected it to get worse as water from the dams reached the area.
Another resident of the tent city, who identified himself as Mateo, said he left through 4 feet of water about 10 a.m. Thursday, leaving almost all of his possessions behind. He had spent most of the morning walking outside, exposed and shivering in soaking wet clothes, worried if some of his friends had gotten out safely.
Up to 6 inches of rain fell overnight in some areas along the Patuxent River, the National Weather Service said, noting the dam releases will likely cause higher water levels than the area has seen in many years.
Laurel city spokesman Pete Piringer said the voluntary evacuations were lifted shortly after 6 p.m. as floodwaters started to recede. The evacuation zone included some large apartment complexes along the river and as many as 2,000 residents, though many chose not to evacuate, while others did not return from work until the evacuations had been rescinded.
The city’s historic Main Street stayed open throughout Thursday and was not directly affected by the floodwaters.
Laurel Mayor Craig Moe said it had been nearly 40 years since he could remember flooding in the city as bad as this. Still, he said there had been no injuries in the city.
At the Howard-Prince George’s County line, Laurel resident Courtney Finney watched floodwaters rise to the base of an overpass on southbound U.S. 1, which was closed to traffic.
“As long as I’ve lived in Laurel — 11 years — I’ve never seen it like this,” she said.
By 5 p.m., the waters were starting to recede, and after 6 p.m., officials reopened the closed section of southbound U.S. 1.
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who toured the flood site late Thursday afternoon, said he hoped the flooding would serve as a wakeup call that the state needs to invest in infrastructure improvements like stormwater management.
“This is the stuff nobody thinks about until something happens,” Ulman said.
He said he had questions for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission about its handling of the flooding, and said Thursday’s death in the tent city shows the need to deal with homelessness.
The WSSC said the heavier-than-expected rainfall prompted it to release water from the Brighton Dam in Brookeville and the Duckett Dam in Laurel. The water utility said rainfall was more than double what was expected in some areas.
Downed trees, meanwhile, halted service on MARC’s Brunswick line, and disruptions continued through the afternoon rush hour.
MARC spokesman Terry Owens said three trains carrying about 800 people were affected Thursday morning by the downed trees near Washington Grove. Passengers were taken back to Gaithersburg, where they were bused to the Shady Grove Metro station.
Near the MARC station in Laurel, authorities towed several cars where floodwaters had risen to the top of some parked cars’ tires. Police said that the flood-prone parking area had been closed off to cars early Thursday morning, but commuters moved the barrels that had been blocking access and parked anyway.
The National Weather Service also warned of minor to moderate flooding along the Monocacy and Potomac rivers in Frederick County.
WNEW’s Karen Adams, Kevin Rincon and Heather Curtis contributed to this report.
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