Telling the story of how a furious storm last week filled his North Baltimore dry cleaning business with brown floodwaters – soaking equipment, clothing, computers and pretty much everything – soft-spoken Kee Kim only lost his composure, ever so slightly, at two moments:
“I feel very sorry to my customers,” said Kim, fretting about the inconvenience for those who patronize his 25-year-old business, Majestic Cleaners, in the Wyndhurst neighborhood beside normally tiny, slow-flowing Stony Run.
“Certain situations, like weddings, their clothes, it’s important to them,” he continued, wincing. “They want it, they need it!”
Kim’s voice also turned tense when he said what many others told The Brew in the wake of the pounding rain on September 12 that caused Stony Run to surge over its banks.
“This has been happening for years,” Kim said, standing in the parking lot that had become totally submerged that night and was now covered with dusty grit.
“In 25 years nothing was done!”
Kim has tried over two decades to protect the building, which he owns, 5008 Lawndale Avenue, by sealing windows and doors to make a barrier.
After each severe flood, he said, he would ask whatever city official arrived on the scene to do something – perhaps dig out the silt and debris increasingly clogging the little waterway.
But when Kim and his wife, Si Jin Kim, arrived at the shop last week amid the thunder, lighting and pelting rain, they confronted a flood like no other.
“I couldn’t get inside my own store because of the water – it just comes very fast, high-pressure,” he said, showing the cracked glass front door that had been smashed by the floodwater.
Inside, he pointed to where the water had risen – four feet in the front of the shop and more than six feet in the lower-level, rear part.
Kee, 65, originally from South Korea, said 10 people work at his family-run business. He was still waiting last week to learn what his insurance would cover.
Next door, workers were dragging soggy material out of another neighborhood mainstay, Miyang Lee’s heavily damaged Lawndale Nail Salon, whose floor was undermined and destroyed by the floodwaters, as were all her equipment, material and furniture.
“Due to flooding, Shananigans is closed today,” said the sign on the door of the longtime neighborhood toy store in Wyndhurst Station.
Multiple businesses in that adjacent, separately-owned complex – also severely impacted – were closed so that workers could drag soggy rugs and inventory outside.
“The city definitely needs to be more proactive in doing work on that stream,” said Michael Weinfeld, the owner of Wyndhurst Station.
Up and down the Stony Run corridor, basements were flooded and roads, alleys and paths that had been briefly turned into swollen rivers were left with potholes, sinkholes, sandy residue, logs and other debris.
In neighborhoods across the Baltimore region, the thunderstorms caused similar damage, downing trees and inundating roadways.
“Numerous water rescues are ongoing in the City of Baltimore. Turn around, don’t drown!” the National Weather Service warned on social media.
The drivers of semi-submerged vehicles on Wabash Avenue, Loch Raven Boulevard and other areas were reportedly stranded.
None of what happened along Stony Run should be any surprise to city officials, according to Caroline Wayner, past president and current secretary of the Wyndhurst Improvement Association.
In 2018, Wayner and others concerned about flooding issues there met extensively with the Department of Public Works (DPW).
The group included representatives of area community associations and two private schools: the Gilman School and Friends School of Baltimore.
Rec & Parks is in charge of the wooded park land along Stony Run, which starts near the city line below the Elkridge golf course and continues south through a number of neighborhoods including Roland Park and Remington before emptying into the Jones Falls.
The raised bed of the former Maryland and Pennsylvania (“Ma and Pa”) Railroad, its tracks long gone, runs beside it.
The waterway itself, however, is the responsibility of DPW.
“For like, a year-and-a-half, we would go down to meetings at the Abel Wolman [DPW headquarters] building,” recalled Wayner.
With storms becoming more severe amid climate change and development sending runoff into the floodplain, the group told officials, these floods damaging residential basements and businesses were increasing in severity.
They said a major factor is the narrow pipe that Stony Run must flow through as it passes under Wyndhurst Avenue, creating a bottleneck.
Some also raised the possibility that the artificial turf athletic fields added by the private schools in recent years have increased the runoff.
Officials at DPW, then headed by Director Rudolph Chow, told them the city was studying the issue and developing plans to address it.
“But in the end, it just went nowhere,” Wayner said. “It seems like Stony Run is not a priority for DPW.”
In her view, the problems will require outside money and expertise: “I don’t think the city can handle it properly – it needs to be the Corps of Engineers.”
A year-and-a-half worth of community meetings with DPW just went nowhere – Caroline Wayner, Wyndurst Improvement Association.
Sharon Green Middleton, the area’s representative on the City Council, said she has been working with city agencies to remedy immediate problems caused by the latest storm, including buckled roads and deep potholes.
Middleton acknowledged that “over 10 years, there have been intense meetings” with DPW about long-term fixes for the stormwater issues but that there is little to show for them so far.
She blamed multiple executive leadership changes, exclaiming, “I’m on my fifth mayor!”
The records for those meetings need to be tracked down and conversations resumed with more urgency, she said, recalling that the engineers concluded that “the piping is too small and creates a bottleneck.”
“It’s time to start talking about a state of emergency for this area,” Middleton continued, noting that she has written a letter to Mayor Brandon Scott about the issue.
“It’s time to get things moving.”
Waist-high Water on 35th
Middleton’s colleague, Councilwoman Odette Ramos, says she has been pushing for a comprehensive strategy to address the issue of worsening stormwater impacts across the entire city.
In the aftermath of last week’s storm, Ramos posted pictures of severe flooding at 35th Street and Hillen Road, a decades-long stormwater trouble spot in the Ednor Gardens/Lakeside neighborhood in her 14th district.
“I was there that night, and I was up to my waist in water,” she said, attributing the problem to Tiffany Run, one of the many buried rivers below Baltimore now exceeding the capacity of the infrastructure thanks to the severe storms brought about by climate change.
“Runoff from 700 acres drains into this area,” said Ramos, who has been working to secure funds to undertake a fix.
After studying the issue, DPW now plans to lay an additional pipe, in the 1500-1700 blocks of Windemere Avenue, designed to better handle the stormwater chronically backing up in the neighborhood.
The work is expected to start sometime next year, she said.
After the latest storm, Ramos contacted Councilman Kristerfer Burnett to compare notes.
His southwest Baltimore 8th district was slammed in 2018, when a powerful river of stormwater gushed down Frederick Avenue in Irvington and other neighborhoods, swamping cars and tearing up asphalt.
“It wasn’t as bad over there this time, apparently because of where the storm was centered, but it’s only going to get worse for all of us,” Ramos asserted. “We’ve got to get a handle on this as a city.”
“These are 100-year floods, and we’ve had three of them in the last three years.”