September 08, 2016

Floor Statement on the Recent Ellicott City Flood and Silver Spring Apartment Explosion & Fire

Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, the first order of business in this return to session is for us to pass an appropriations bill to keep the government open on October 1. I know that people are physically at work in order to make that a reality.

   I was on the floor yesterday talking about the need to fund Zika. To me, that is urgent. We have to get that done now. I explained then that there are real risks to the general population of Maryland and Colorado and every State in this country from the Zika virus.

   Today I am going to talk about two episodes--two disasters--that occurred in Maryland during the recess. I mention that in this context because we need our Federal agencies fully functioning and fully funded in order to deal with the things that just happen in America.

   In my own State we had two horrible disasters during the recess, and I would like to talk a little bit about that.

   Marylanders are heartbroken by the devastation that has hit our community in Ellicott City. My condolences go out to the family and friends who lost loved ones in the tragedy.

   I want to especially thank the first responders who worked tirelessly to save lives and property after the historic flooding in Ellicott City.

   Ellicott City is a historic Maryland treasure, founded in 1772 and known for its vibrant business community and its culture of kindness and resilience. It suffered significant flooding throughout the intense rainfall on the evening of July 30, 2016. The National Weather Service predicts that a rainfall of this magnitude should statistically occur once in every 1,000 years. Six inches of rain poured down on Ellicott City--an amount of rain that normally falls over the course of one month--in the period of only 90 minutes.

   Shortly after the storm hit, I toured Ellicott City with Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, officials from the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, MEMA, and other Federal, State, and local officials. The devastation is truly frightening in terms of damage to property, businesses, homes, vehicles, and infrastructure in Ellicott City.

   As the Baltimore Sun reported, Saturday, July 30, began unremarkably for a summer day in the mid-Atlantic, with thunderstorms expected. Joseph Anthony Blevins was out on a date night with his girlfriend Heather Owens, and he suggested they stop at Main Street in Ellicott City. They had just left a matinee at a movie theater in Laurel and were heading home to Windsor Mill. With a roll of her eyes, she agreed to stop in the city's historic district.

   Let me continue with the Baltimore Sun's reporting of this story:

   It was raining when [Heather Owens and Joe Blevins] pulled into a parking lot off Main Street around 7:30 p.m., and they sat in the car to wait out what they expected to be a short downpour. They didn't know that the weather service had issued a flash flood warning for much of central Maryland about 12 minutes earlier. When they realized the rain was not going to let up, they decided to go home. They pulled back on to Main Street, but within five minutes, their car began floating. The car struck a guardrail and plunged into the swollen Patapsco River.

   Owens was able to get out of the passenger side window, and thinks she grabbed something, perhaps a branch of a tree on the river bank, as the current pulled her downstream.

   She looked for Blevins and saw him in the river, gasping for air and reaching in vain for something to hold on to. She scrambled up the rocky bank onto nearby railroad tracks, heading toward houses on higher ground to get help. The rushing waters had torn her pants and shoes off, but she survived with a fractured jaw. ..... Residents and first responders later looked unsuccessfully for Blevins. Blevins, 38, died during the flooding, leaving behind Owens and his three children.

   A confluence of meteorological and geographical factors turned this hard summer rain into a destructive torrent. In less than 2 hours the river rose 14 feet above its normal flow. Shops and restaurants that line Main Street were swamped and flooded as water rushed down the street and rose underneath it. The Tiber, usually just an inch or two of water running through a reinforced channel below some of the buildings, swelled during the storm.

   You can see a little bit here of the damage that we are talking about in this photograph. I had a chance to see this firsthand, and it was incredible that buildings had been completely washed away. The river normally flowed underneath that and has for a long time, but because of construction and because of the amount of water that fell, the water was funneled into Main Street, and it became a force of itself going down Main Street, as well as the river rising below it, causing major destruction.

   Jessica Lynn Watsula also died in the flood. Again, as the Baltimore Sun reports, she was a 35-year-old mother who lived in Lebanon, PA, and had gone to Portalli's in Ellicott City that night with three women for a girls' night out.

   Watsula dropped off her 10-year-old daughter at her brother's home and drove two hours from Pennsylvania for dinner and painting Saturday in Ellicott City--a chance to share an evening with her sister-in-law and two other relatives.

   As the four women left Portalli's Italian restaurant on Main Street in the historic district, a wave of flood water began to sweep their car away. They got out and clung to a telephone pole as waist-high water rushed over them.

   Watsula was swept away and died in the flood.

   As we mourn the loss of Joseph Blevins and Jessica Watsula, let me thank the citizens of Ellicott City who undoubtedly saved many lives with their heroic actions during this historic and deadly flood.

   I am pleased that our congressional delegation has moved quickly to facilitate the emergency help for families, communities, homeowners, and small businesses to recover from this disaster.

   I want to recognize and praise the Federal agencies who stepped up to the plate and worked hand-in-hand with our State and local officials.

   Let me start by thanking the Small Business Administration and specifically SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet for her tremendous help to the people of Ellicott City. The SBA's survey of Ellicott City found more than the 25 structures--with 40 percent or more of uninsured damage--required to recommend an SBA physical declaration.

   At least 60 homeowners, renters, and businesses in Ellicott City and surrounding areas sustained major damage or were destroyed. More than 80 structures sustained minor damage as well.

   In this case, the Federal disaster declaration from the SBA was necessary to ensure Howard County business owners got the physical disaster loan assistance and economic injury disaster loan assistance they need to repair or replace real estate, personal property, equipment, or inventory damaged or destroyed in the disturbance. I know many of these shopowners. These are not chains; these are small business people who have set up their own unique businesses providing retail services in a way that reminds us of how retail used to be in this country. Main Street in Ellicott City is Main Street America. These people are very resilient, but when you have this type of damage and you know how long it is going to be before you can return the structure to its use, it requires a helping hand.

   I was pleased that the SBA came through for the citizens of Ellicott City by approving a formal disaster declaration which will allow the homeowners, businesses, and nonprofit organizations impacted by this epic storm and resultant floodwaters to apply for economic injury disaster loans, which provide low-interest assistance to help businesses meet their financial obligations and pay ordinary and necessary operating expenses.

   The SBA has repeatedly proven its willingness and ability to help Marylanders struck by crisis. I express my sincere thanks to the SBA for the assistance extended to our neighbors in need, and I will continue to work with Team Maryland, including Senator Mikulski and Congressman Cummings, to identify additional resources to aid Ellicott City. The Maryland delegation has come together to support the State's request for a Federal disaster declaration for Howard County after the deadly and devastating flood in Ellicott City.

   Given the massive impact this flooding had on our State and our local resources, I have joined my colleagues in the Maryland delegation in writing a letter to the President urging him to approve the Federal disaster declaration at the request of our Governor, Larry Hogan.

   I also acknowledge the extraordinary help from officials from Region III of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and in particular MaryAnn Tierney. Region III offices are headquartered in Philadelphia but include the State of Maryland. So I appreciate Administrator Tierney coming down for a site visit to oversee the joint preliminary assessment. She was there immediately. I met with her. She understood the urgency and the importance of being on the ground. I was pleased to have the opportunity to meet with her and others during her site visit to Ellicott City. I thank her for her coordination with State and local officials in responding to this disaster.

   Mr. President, I also want to share with my colleagues another major disaster that occurred in Maryland over the Senate recess. On August 10, a massive explosion and fire took place at the Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring, MD. Seven individuals died in the catastrophe, which caused dozens of injuries and displaced over 100 residents.

   I was at this scene also. We lost life. People lost their lives, and I am going to mention their names. I was surprised to find that there were survivors when I took a look at the amount of damage that was done by this explosion. The first responders showed me parts of the building that were found hundreds of yards away, mangled by the force of the explosion. There was immediately a fire that consumed the rest of the premises. As the Washington Post reported, the destruction was so devastating that authorities were unable to immediately determine how many people died. There was difficulty in making identifications.

   Among the victims were two little boys, Deibi Morales and Fernando Hernandez, who had become friends as their mothers undertook new lives in the United States; a couple, Augusto Jimenez and Maria Castellon, who built a house-cleaning business; and a retired painter, Saul Paniagua, who doted on his grandchildren. We mourn all their lives, and we extend our deepest condolences to their families.

   I toured this site recently with Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and other Federal, State, and local officials, including officials from the Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue Service. Our hearts go out to the families who have been impacted by this horrible tragedy in Montgomery County.

   I want to thank the first responders, State and local officials, as well as a wide range of nonprofit, faith-based and community groups who have answered the call to help victims, families, and loved ones begin to put their pieces back together as best they can. It was heartwarming to see the community outpouring to help those who were homeless immediately as a result of this disaster and to provide whatever they could.

   They provided help to the first responders. The temperature was over 100 degrees during the period of time this occurred. There were oppressive temperatures and very difficult working conditions. The community came together to help the first responders. We had a team come in from out of town who is expert in this type of accident to help us in dealing with this tragedy.

   I thank everybody for their help in trying to do what we could to help those who are fighting and helping to locate the survivors and to those who were victimized by this explosion.

   At the Federal level, I commend the work of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in helping with the investigation of this massive explosion and fire.

   I am pleased that the National Transportation Safety Board has launched a formal investigation into this incident, and that is because there is an expected gas line issue involved in the explosion. I am hopeful that the National Transportation Safety Board investigation will uncover the causes of the explosion and fire and hold individuals accountable for any wrongdoing, as well as lead to additional safety recommendations as to how to help prevent these types of devastating explosions in the future.

   We should also examine our outreach and education efforts to the immigrant community to make sure that all residents are aware of the rights and government services available to them. This community is an immigrant community. For many, English is not their first language. It was an additional challenge to make sure they understood that we were there to help and that we wanted to make sure we did everything we could to make sure they were properly taken care of.

   Again, I thank the Federal, State, and local government agencies that helped the citizens of Ellicott City and Silver Spring respond to these terrible disasters. Working with our nonprofits and faith-based communities, we can recover and rebuild from these tragedies.

   As I said in the beginning, this is just another example of why it is critically important that we do our job here and that we pass the necessary appropriations bills so that our Federal partners can help our State and local governments help those who are victimized by these types of disasters, that they knew they have the Federal agencies fully tooled, fully budgeted to help them respond to these tragedies.