- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

More than 2,000 Montgomery County residents were forced from their homes yesterday as days of torrential rains threatened to breach an earthen dam at Lake Needwood and flood their neighborhoods.

“I’d been through this in ‘72 when [Hurricane] Agnes came through,” said Judy Williams, 61, who had to evacuate her home in Viers Mill Village in the early — morning darkness. “There’s going to be a lot of loss, but that’s material things. At least you’re out.”

By late yesterday, county officials still were telling residents to stay away from their homes until workers with the Maryland Department of the Environment determine that the dam — on the southern shore of the 75-acre lake in Derwood — is repaired.

“A tremendous effort is under way at the scene of the dam to fill the seepage that has occurred,” said Montgomery County Chief Administrative Officer Bruce Romer. “The situation … is still uncertain enough that we are advising our evacuated residents to continue to stay out of their homes.”

Police began issuing mandatory evacuation orders after days of heavy rain raised the water level of the lake to 25 feet above normal.

The surging levels cracked the dam, which caused officials to worry that water would flow into Rock Creek, then flood homes in the Aspen Hill and Garrett Park neighborhoods and apartment units in Rock Creek Terrace in Rockville in the area of the 12000 block of Viers Mill Road.

About 700 homes and 500 apartment units were evacuated, said county spokeswoman Donna Bigler.

More than 20 feet of water could have spilled onto nearby roads had the dam broke, and Viers Mill Road, a major thoroughfare, could have been under as much as 8 feet of water, county officials said.

About 2,200 residents fled their homes, while about 100 others refused to leave and stayed behind, county officials said. Roughly 200 went to Wheaton High School, where a temporary Red Cross shelter has been established.

Another 200 went to a shelter at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, while about 20 evacuees with pets stayed at the Montgomery County fairgrounds in Gaithersburg.

“Something like this is very frightening,” said Trudi, a resident in the 600 block of Viers Mill Road who did not want to give her last name. She was among hundreds of evacuees at Wheaton High School.

“I’ve lived here for 34 years, and we’ve never had anything this bad. All I can think of is [Hurricane] Katrina.”

Miss Williams said police knocked on her door at about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, leaving her enough time to phone a friend and grab a few essentials from her home, such as diabetes medicine, clothes and some blankets.

Then she drove to the Wheaton shelter.

“After I left I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t even get a picture of my grandkids or my mother,’” she said. “Those are the things you think of when you get your head on straight.”

Elizabeth Kelly, another evacuee temporarily housed at Wheaton, said she was able to grab personal papers, clothes, pain medication, a word-search book and a Bible before abandoning her garden apartment in Rock Creek Terrace.

“What matters is here, the people,” said Miss Kelly, 44. “You can always get a replacement for the materialistic things.”

The Red Cross provided cots, meals and games for children at the high school while residents waited for word on when they might be able to return to their homes.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., arrived late in the day to talk with evacuees, after touring the storm-related damage in the county and on the Eastern Shore.

Some of the evacuees huddled on cots under blankets and tried to catch up on lost sleep. Others stayed awake to tend to their children, still concerned about losing their homes.

“I worry about it,” said Embete Bittula, 30, who came to Wheaton with her daughter and two neighbors. “I wonder what [will happen].”

Though residents cannot return to their homes, Gordon Aoyagi, director of Homeland Security for Montgomery County, said yesterday afternoon that “the situation is under control” at the dam. About 100 workers were at the scene by evening, working to fill areas of seepage with sand and gravel.

Crews also were measuring the water flow at the dam, and police were patrolling the evacuated neighborhoods.

Mr. Romer said officials will determine on a day-to-day basis when residents can return to their homes.

“One thing we know for certain is we will not be able to sound the all-clear this evening,” he said.

There are more than 400 dams in Maryland, but the Lake Needwood dam was the only “high-hazard” one in danger of breaking this week because of the heavy rains, said Chuck Gates, a Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman.

Mr. Gates said Maryland has 66 high-hazard dams, which are defined as those that, if breached, could put at could at least six lives at risk and cause major damage to businesses, homes and roads.

He said about five low-hazard, damlike structures failed earlier this week in Dorchester County as a result of a domino effect after the first one failed.

There are more than 100 lakes in Maryland, all of them man-made. The Maryland State Archives says 20 of the lakes are in Montgomery County, more than any county in the state.

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