Why was Route 50 flooding in Prince George’s County so extreme?

U.S. Route 50 — one of the busiest roads in the D.C. metro area — was flooded and completely impassable east of Kenilworth Avenue hours after the heaviest rains on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.

Crews launching an inflatable boat to rescue a stranded driver on Route 50 in Cheverly, Maryland, Sept. 10, 2020. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)
Crews launched an inflatable boat to rescue a stranded driver on Route 50 in Cheverly, Maryland, on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.

water rescue
A person is rescued from flooded U.S. Route 50 on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.

Emergency crews searching stalled vehicles Sept. 10, 2020. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)
Emergency crews searched stalled vehicles on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.

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Crews launching an inflatable boat to rescue a stranded driver on Route 50 in Cheverly, Maryland, Sept. 10, 2020. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)
water rescue
Emergency crews searching stalled vehicles Sept. 10, 2020. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)

Flash flooding Thursday turned U.S. Route 50 in Prince George’s County, Maryland, into a river.

Thunderstorms dumped several inches of rain over parts of the D.C. region, and the highway — one of the busiest roads in the area — was submerged under 5 feet of brackish water, trapping several drivers and backing up traffic in both directions for several hours.

People who live in the Cheverly area, near the D.C.-Maryland line, are used to some flooding during heavy rain, but Thursday’s flooding was worse than some longtime residents have ever seen.

Now, state transportation officials, who are responsible for maintaining the road, are taking a closer look.

Prince George’s County Council member Jolene Ivey, whose district includes Cheverly, said she ended up being caught in some of the backed-up traffic on Route 50 after she and her son ventured out to get a pump for their flooded basement.

“We have had flooding in the past on Route 50 — that is not a new thing,” Ivey told WTOP.

But, she added, “Everything was just worse yesterday. Everything was worse.”

It’s not uncommon to see the highway, as well as Tuxedo Road, which runs parallel to it, covered with water after heavy rain.

“I’ve seen both sides flooded quite a bit over the years,” Ivey said. “But this was definitely the worst.”

Both Route 50 and Tuxedo Road are state roads, and the responsibility for maintaining them lies with the state of Maryland.

“I think that everybody’s kind of accepted it up to this point because, like I said, you’d have flooding, but it would be over and it wouldn’t be devastating,” Ivey said. “We talk to the state, and they know it’s a problem. But I don’t think anybody has come up with any great solutions so far.”

Shantee Felix, a spokeswoman with the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration, said the state is reviewing the situation.

“Whenever we have incidents, major impacts on our roadways, we always want to follow up and make sure they are prevented in the future,” Felix said.

At the height of the flooding, shortly after 4 p.m., there was 5 feet of standing water on the roadway. “So, that’s a lot,” she said.

All told, the flooding closed Route 50 for about six hours Thursday afternoon, Felix added.

In several photos and videos, WTOP traffic reporter and photographer Dave Dildine captured the floodwaters overtaking the highway and some of the dramatic rescues.

Several drivers who were trapped inside their cars amid the rising waters had to be rescued by emergency crews.

Some vehicles, including a pickup truck on Tuxedo Road, were submerged up to their roofs in what Dildine described as a “putrid mix of brown runoff, petrochemical slicks, trash and other chemicals from the nearby industrial facilities.”

In one case, a woman with mobility issues, who was stuck inside her car, had to be rescued by crews who launched an inflatable boat to her stranded car, as she used a cup to scoop the water from her lap.

Authorities reported receiving a deluge of calls for water rescues but said there were no serious injuries.

As for why Thursday’s flooding was so severe, the sheer amount of rain in such a short amount of time played a key role.

“Just within the period of an hour or two, 3 to 5 inches of rain fell in parts of Northeast Washington extending into Prince George’s County,” said Chris Strong, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“That stretch of U.S. 50 was among the hardest hit with this particular storm,” he added.

Geography is also likely to blame.

The highway courses through an area that is low and bowl-shaped, and is surrounded by warehouses and industrial plants with impervious surfaces, said Dildine, who has studied the area closely.

“Because Beaverdam Creek empties into the main stem Anacostia River near that flood-prone location, it accepts runoff for a long time after the heavy rain subsides,” he added.

“The flooding there usually takes a while to recede. And, since more than 5 inches of rain fell in the upper reaches of the watershed, it took hours for the water level to fall on Route 50, much longer than usual,” Dildine said.

WTOP’s Nick Iannelli contributed to this report.

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