By Shannon Baker and Sharon Mager
ELLICOTT CITY, Md.— Constance Smith has been a resident in the community of Beechfield for over 31 years. Her neighbor Dale Collins has lived there for 11 years. Both were completely caught off guard when severe flooding devastated their West Baltimore neighborhood on May 27.
By the time Smith left church, ate lunch, and got to her house, the rain was really coming down, she told Scott Isbell of The Broken Wall Project (BWP), a church plant in West Baltimore.
“I went into my house, changed clothes, turned around, and there was a river,” she exclaimed, describing the unfolding scene: “There were trash cans, lawn chairs, and even a dog floating down the street.”
Collins couldn’t even cross the street, Smith said.
“I was in my car for two hours,” said Collins, explaining a tow-truck driver attempted to bring her across the street. “But the water was gushing so fast, I couldn’t get out!”
She recalled, “It was a really scary situation. We had a storm in 2016, but it was nothing like this.”
In 2016, a severe storm flooded several lower-lying areas west of Baltimore and caused significant damage to the historic downtown area of Ellicott City.
But this storm seemed much worse, again devastating Ellicott City, but also many homes and businesses all down Frederick Avenue, extending through Baltimore City and Catonsville. Almost 10 inches of water fell over a two-hour period. The overwhelming rush of flood waters resulted in the death of one rescuer and at least 30 water rescues.
“It should be called Frederick River now!” said Smith, whose backyard completely was filled with water “like a swimming pool.” She had four feet of water in her basement, where she lost everything. The water pressure was so hard that it knocked the hinges off her basement door.
Her appliances—washer, dryer, hot water heater—all were knocked over. Oil leaked everywhere.
“The smell was devastating,” she said.
Even so, she expressed gratitude for local pastors Pastor Mike Martin, of Stillmeadow Community Church, Pastor Ron Willoughby of The Broken Wall Project (soon to be called Broken Wall Community Church), and Pastor David Franklin, Miracle City Church, and for the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware’s Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, among others, who came to survey the damage and are working to clean up the basement.
Collins, too, expressed thanksgiving for the “volunteers who are professionals,” who also surveyed her basement and damaged belongings.
“If it weren’t for that, I don’t know what I would do!” Collins said. “It’s been rough. But God has sent other angels from other ways to actually help us.”
“It just makes my heart overflow with love for the people that are really helping us,” agreed Smith. I mean, we’re not getting the coverage like Ellicott City. But these are people’s lives. People are struggling—homeowners, renters, you know, just trying to be a productive citizen in the country, in the city.”
She added, “It kind of makes you think tomorrow’s not promised and all of this stuff can be gone. And even you!…
[Y]ou think about people in our countries that are suffering and you can you say, ‘God, let me stop and thank You.’”
Willoughby described the “Frederick Avenue Flood of 2018” in his email newsletter to his prayer partners: “At 3 p.m. on May 27, what was supposed to be a 30 percent chance of rain came as a deluge. In a matter of an hour, storm drains were backing up in the streets. By 4:30, roads were flooded. And by 5:15, Frederick Avenue, a major thoroughfare in our community, was a river.”
Turning his attention to where he ministers, he offered, “I don’t feel the need to spell out what this kind of disaster means for people who live in substandard housing or who already live by a thread. Nor do I need to spend too much time telling you of the frustration of trying to get people to notice our community and the lives that have been wrecked, the scraps of equity washed away, and the need for people to care about us.”
The church, which gathers to worship at North Bend Elementary School, immediately responded to the crisis, said Emily Isbell, a mission strategist who serves BWP by overseeing community partnerships, cultivating relationships, and caring for people.
Like the rest of the BWP’s leadership, she has a passion for spiritual restoration and development, and a God-given desire to build a thriving diverse community of faith.
Prior to the flooding, BWP already had an established partnership with Stillmeadow Community Fellowship, in the neighborhood where much of the severe flooding occurred.
Stillmeadow opened doors to emergency crews, volunteers, and representatives from many different agencies who were on hand to assist as needed for the residents.
Willoughby’s role “and one of his giftings,” said Isbell, was meeting new people, connecting with them, building rapport and most importantly, advocating for their community.
“As a church, we recognize we have to stand up for our community to ensure the needs of those who live there are being heard,” Isbell said, noting Willougby’s great ability to keep pressing the local politicians for more.
“Yes, we have had a disaster but what do we do now?” he asks.
Meanwhile, Isbell has been working with Jesse Florida, co-pastor of Metanoia Church, another partner church, and other churches as well as the BCM/D’s Disaster Relief; Team Rubicon, an organization of military veterans who deploy emergency response teams; the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), who offers emergency relief and development programs.
Florida, who also is now serving as disaster communications liaison working alongside Maryland VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active In Disaster), and funded by the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, was stunned when he saw that Ellicott City had flooded once again.
“My wife [Katie] and I were away when we heard about the flood. We saw footage of Main Street, and we were wrecked. This was happening again. We gathered up our things to head home early and get to work,” he said.
Florida worked around the clock after the Ellicott City flood of 2016, when he organized a small army of volunteers who served their community tirelessly. Katie helped, and is helping now, with the organization and taking care of home needs during what Jesse calls “crazy time.”
“Now I have a couple years dealing with it, and it’s fresh on my mind,” says Florida. “The last time I didn’t see some of the opportunities to cooperate that were readily available. In some ways, I was trying to reinvent the wheel. This time I have more connections, I know how to get help to people, and I’m trying to utilize that knowledge to make the quickest impact as possible.”
In addition to helping in Ellicott City, Florida is also working with the volunteers in areas of Baltimore County and Baltimore City that were affected by the Memorial Day flood as well as those in Washington and Frederick Counties, where over 2,000 buildings were damaged just a few weeks prior to the storm in Ellicott City and Baltimore. Because of the breadth of the last storm, it is now referred to as “The 2018 Maryland Flood.”
Using a database called “Crisis Cleanup,” Isbell, Florida and others are quickly able to network with disaster relief (DR) volunteers and agencies all around the region. Florida explains, “It’s basically a catchall for people affected so their needs can be viewed by vast organizations willing to get in and help.”
They organize the data gathered from multiple teams who assessed the damage and coordinate the response, which now includes debris removal, tear down of damage, and mold remediation. Once damaged materials are removed, they will help with rebuild.
Several people have registered, but Isbell said she’s concerned about those who have not.
“Many of them are used to not being acknowledged and helped, so they don’t expect—or even know—they can get help,” she said.
Many live in the basements of buildings occupied by other residents. One such family has continued to stay in the wet basement. It’s been a week since the flood, and they are just now hearing there is help, she said.
Some residents feel they have no right to tell their landlords what to do. With no written record of rent payments, one resident, who once was homeless, feels stuck in the house with wet carpet. She has asthma. Those kind of stories compel BWP and its partners to take action.
“All people are created in God’s image and should be treated with dignity,” asserted Isbell. To the government officials and employees, BWP volunteers remind them, “You need to see these people and take care of them… not sweep them under the rug.”
Florida agrees, explaining that in his role, in addition to making connections for disaster relief, he’s also called to “be there” as needed—the ministry of presence.
For example, he shared, “There was a woman who had basic needs that went beyond the floodwaters that the Red Cross and Southern Baptists couldn’t help, so I met with her and went through the necessary channels to make her aware of resources available to her.” He also provided encouragement and prayer.
Through his ministry, Florida is seeing God at work, especially in the volunteers. “I’m seeing a wisdom and peace that’s really apparent with the workers,” he says.
He’s praying that peace will be shared with those who have lost so much and who are discouraged.
“Right now it’s raw and present, and there’s a huge sense of hopelessness,” he says, “but what I see is an opportunity.”
He shares that God opened his eyes to see the need around him, even in his own neighborhood. Some people wanted relief from the flood damage, but some lacked the basic essentials for day-to-day living.
CATONSVILLE BAPTIST CHURCH (CBC) served as a disaster relief staging area, housing mission teams, and sending members out to work alongside the teams. CBC Pastor Christopher Snider said seeing SBC DR volunteers, along with Team Rubicon, and the Red Cross, collaborating together was very encouraging.
Snider said a few CBC members are DR trained and are working in the area.
“A lot of college-aged students have been jumping in to help. That’s something we want to champion,” he said.
Also, seniors at the church who can’t go into the field were happy to be to be able to serve in the office and still be a part of the ministry, Snider said.
Volunteers especially appreciated the showers, Snider said. In addition to the church’s facilities, they had access to the Baltimore Baptist Association’s shower trailer parked on the CBC lot.
Even though the command center has been disassembled, the church will continue to house teams as needed.
Bethel Baptist Church members also responded quickly to meet the needs of flood victims in Ellicott City.
Ken Cavey, senior pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, Ellicott City, and a volunteer chaplain for the Howard County Police Department, arrived downtown as the waters began to recede, along with Governor Larry Hogan, Maryland Senator Gail Bates, and Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman.
“I checked on the officers down there and walked through the city, praying,” he said. Having gotten to know some of the people affected by the 2016 storm, Cavey’s heart was broken.
He described the scene of cars buried in mud, broken windows with debris lodged in them, the complete front of a building with a fitness center blown out and destroyed, and a shocked bridal party positioned up the hill by the Court House. Rescue personnel were checking buildings for people that may have been trapped.
“I saw the devastation and knew they had a long road ahead of them. Some would not be able to come back emotionally or physically. It was more than they could handle,” Cavey said.
He said one man had just arrived in Ellicott City prior to the 2016 flood and opened his business just three weeks prior to the current flood.
He sold robes and slippers and other spa-type items for men and women.
“He had a player piano in the window, and he had ordered wallpaper from London, and it was all destroyed,” Cavey said, sharing what he found in the city with his church, and members got to work quickly, sending teams of 10 to 15 volunteers out every other weekend as needed by Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (DR) to help gut and clean out basements, do mud-outs, and whatever else was needed.
“Some basements still had seven to eight inches of sewer water and everything was destroyed,” Cavey said.
The church continues to send and coordinate teams as needed, and Cavey has continued to check on folks and meet with police officers every week. They are tired.
“They’ve been working extra shifts managing the perimeters,” he said. Fortunately, roads are slowly being reopened and the extra burdens are easing a bit.
The town has a long way to go, and everyone needs prayer, including the people in and around Ellicott City, and the disaster relief recovery workers, who not only physically give of their talents to provide relief, but intentionally seek ways to share Christ.
Florida says, “Don’t wait for a flood to be ‘on mission.’ Look for needs around you. Help where you are.”