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Preparing for the thousand-year storm

Sprawl has made Baltimore suburb Ellicott City more vulnerable to climate change

On an unseasonably warm late-summer day, the narrow, mile-long stretch of Main Street in Ellicott City, Maryland, was jam-packed. It was the weekend of the Main Street Music Fest, a daylong event for local and unsigned bands that’s been a town staple since 2012. Shoppers ducked in and out of the stores on the main drag, which was clogged with traffic, and people with frosty cups of locally brewed beer hung out in parking lots off of Main Street that had been repurposed as stages. The mood was jovial—celebratory, even.

And there was plenty to celebrate: The weekend marked the festival’s return to Main Street for the first time since 2017. Last year, Ellicott City was still reeling from the disastrous downpour of May 27, 2018, when a severe rainstorm walloped the town, leading to flash floods that ravaged roads and buildings and killed one person. It was the second torrential, 1,000-year storm to pummel the town in as many years. On July 30, 2016, heavy rain soaked Ellicott City in a span of just a few hours, causing flash floods that inundated Main Street, wiped out storefronts and vehicles, and killed two people.

The three years since that first storm have been tumultuous ones for this 247-year-old Howard County mill town, which is located about 12 miles from downtown Baltimore and has long functioned as a suburb of that metropolis. Plans to safeguard the area from future floods have been pitched (and scrapped), with mixed reactions from residents and business owners. Many Main Street merchants rebuilt their stores after the 2016 storm, only to have their work washed away barely two years later; some chose to leave rather than risk having their life’s work destroyed during another catastrophic event. And a new administration was elected in Howard County in 2018, which eventually led to an entirely new mitigation plan for future storms.

All the while, the threat of another major storm has hung over the town. According to the National Climate Assessment, “heavy rainfall events have increased” in the Northeast—which the assessment defines as the area spanning from Maryland to Maine—more than in any other region in the country. The amount of rain that falls during these events increased by 70 percent between 1958 and 2010. And in 2018, several municipalities near Ellicott City recorded their wettest years ever; Catonsville, a small town that begins where Ellicott City’s Main Street ends, was inundated with more than 84 inches of rain last year. The question isn’t if another storm of this level will happen, it’s when.

Ellicott City isn’t the only town in the country that’s dealing with the aftermath of historic, catastrophic flooding. Earlier this year, several states across the Midwest and the southern plains experienced heretofore unseen levels of flooding that devastated towns and caused billions of dollars in damages. And a 2018 report notes that urban flooding, which is defined as “an inability on the part of a community to manage runoff from large rainfall events and to move the water off affected areas in a timely and efficient manner,” has only gotten worse in the past two decades. According to the report, around 3,600 of those events have happened since 1993—or one every two or three days.

“As we see increasing frequency and intensity of storms, it is our duty to take climate change seriously and take important steps to mitigating our carbon footprint and building resiliency,” Calvin Ball, the recently elected county executive, said in an interview.

But resilient infrastructure may not be enough. The historic center of Ellicott City was clobbered, in part, because of the suburban developments that sprung up around the town after 1960. Farmland and forests were replaced with housing, driveways, and big-box shopping centers with hundreds of parking spaces, creating geographical conditions that exacerbate the impacts of weather events like severe storms. That suburban sprawl is, on a larger scale, contributing to climate change—and there are some who think Ellicott City needs to do more to curb it.

Before the back-to-back floods, Ellicott City was mostly known for its quaint main drag—literally, a Main Street—lined with small brick and wood-frame buildings, many of which date back to the 18th and 19th century. The town was founded in 1772 by three brothers, who took advantage of the location’s proximity to the Patapsco River to create a thriving milling industry. It later became a hub for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, with a train station (which stands to this day) built at the bottom of Main Street in 1831.

By the 20th century, both of those industries had ceased being the main economic drivers for Ellicott City, replaced by tourism to its historic buildings and charming town center. The structures that once held taverns, lumber companies, and boarding houses were repurposed as shops and restaurants: a used bookstore in an 18th-century building that was once a saloon, a record store in a circa-1848 stone structure that was once a fraternal lodge, and more. Before the first flood in 2016, more than 100 businesses that lined Main Street generated some $200 million in annual revenue, according to a report from the Jacob France Institute. Ball, the county executive, says Ellicott City is the second-biggest economic driver for Howard County as a whole.

But the flooding laid bare how vulnerable Ellicott City is to natural disasters. The town is part of the Tiber-Hudson Watershed, a natural drainage area that has four tributaries flowing through its three-and-a-half-square-mile expanse, all of which eventually empty into the Patapsco River. The land surrounding the streams within the watershed has been built up over the years, with a mix of modest midcentury ranchers and bigger suburban McMansions occupying close to 95 percent of the available space. That land is already prone to flooding thanks to its geological makeup (mostly granite), but the uptick in development after 1980 has exacerbated the effects of suburban sprawl.

And then there’s the geography of the town itself: “Ellicott City is like the bottom of a funnel,” explains Mark DeLuca, the deputy director of public works for Howard County. Main Street is built into a steep hill, with the Patapsco River at the very bottom. The watershed’s four tributaries all feed into that waterway, and when heavy storms inundate those streams, there’s nowhere for the runoff to go but downhill.

“Everything that’s in the town is within the 100-year floodplain,” says DeLuca. “So by all of our standards, that town shouldn’t be there.”

The Washington Post via Getty Images

Ellicott City has experienced its fair share of devastating floods, including one in 1868 in which the Patapsco rose 20 feet, all but obliterating much of the town. What made the flooding in 2016 and 2018 different is the fact that it wasn’t caused by the Patapsco rising; it was caused by super-intense storms that camped out over the town for short periods of time (about four hours in 2016 and six hours in 2018). Both of those events were later classified as 1,000-year storms, meaning that, given the historical weather patterns, there was a 0.1 percent chance the town would experience rainfall that severe and devastating. Combine that with the other land-use and environmental factors of the town, and you have what DeLuca calls “essentially a perfect-storm scenario.”

Dramatic videos and photos taken in the aftermath of both the 2016 and 2018 storms showed cars, trash, tree branches, and even the iconic clock that sat next to the B&O rail station being swept down Main Street at an alarmingly fast rate. Water surged into buildings, in some cases rising past the first floor of low-slung structures. Once the floodwaters receded, much of Main Street was destroyed.

“[They are] probably the most intense storms that I’ve seen in this area, that we’ve ever experienced,” says DeLuca, an 18-year veteran of the Department of Public Works.

After the 2016 storm, the focus was largely on rebuilding, as well as creating bulwarks against future floods, with then-County Executive Allan Kittleman announcing several projects that were intended to help contain stormwater in the upper part of the watershed. But much of the story after 2016 was about the resilience of the people impacted by the flooding. The hashtag #ECStrong popped up everywhere—on T-shirts, mugs, wristbands, and even as the name of a 5K run to benefit the town—and a year after the flood, nearly all of the impacted businesses had reopened.

And then the 2018 storm happened.

“When the second flood hits, it’s a little tougher. You lose a little bit of the chutzpah that people had [in 2016],” says Mike Hinson, acting director of the Howard County Office of Emergency Management. “A lot of people had blown through some of their personal money to get back open and now they were struck again. So things changed there a little bit.”

The county government also had to change its approach to flood protection; clearly, a more comprehensive, long-term solution was needed. In August 2018, Kittleman unveiled an ambitious $50 million plan that called for razing 10 of the historic buildings on the south side of Main Street and replacing them with an open space that would mitigate the roadway’s funnel effect. Another seven buildings in a different part of town were also eyed for demolition, all in the name of putting flood-protection measures into place throughout the town.

The Washington Post via Getty Images

“The most experienced forecasters are telling us that storms capable of producing these devastating flash floods are becoming more likely in the entire mid-Atlantic region,” Kittleman said at a press conference announcing the plan. “Our need to adapt to this likelihood, and our need to first and foremost protect life safety, has changed the conversation. I wish we weren’t at this point, but this is the change we need.”

But the possible demolition of such a large number of Ellicott City’s buildings made Kittleman’s plan unpopular, with residents, preservationists, and other county officials coming together to oppose it. “We felt [Kittleman’s plan] was a precedent, a dangerous precedent, not only for Ellicott City and for the state, but a nationally concerning precedent,” says Nicholas Redding, the executive director of Preservation Maryland, a nonprofit that focuses on historic conservation issues across the state. “We didn’t want this to become something that other cities look to as an example of what to do after you have some type of catastrophic flooding or disaster, because the knee-jerk reaction should not be to demolish first and ask questions later.”

Members of the public expressed their displeasure at the polls: In November 2018, Kittleman was voted out of office, and former County Councilmember Calvin Ball was voted in. “It became sort of a referendum for Alan Kittleman in terms of his reelection,” says Redding. “It hinged on this idea that they were going to spend tens of millions of dollars in demolishing a community and didn’t really have a plan for what would come next and didn’t really know how that would impact the community. Not surprisingly, the majority of folks in Howard County pushed back against that.”

When Ball took office one month after the election, one of his first priorities was to pause the Kittleman plan and approach Ellicott City’s flooding problem with fresh eyes. “I spent a lot of time listening to folks throughout Howard County, and what I heard was that they wanted a plan with more transparency,” Ball says. “They wanted a plan that made safety a priority, a plan that to the extent possible addressed the issues more.”

Those issues included historic preservation; keeping the character of the town center as intact as possible was, for many, a top priority. So Ball pushed officials within the county government to approach the problem differently. “I think previously the focus was, what can be done as quickly as possible?” Ball explains. “My charge was, what can be done to look at a town that’s almost 250 years [old] and prepared for the next 250 years? That’s going to be an investment. Instead of renting out a mediocre solution, let’s buy a great solution.”

That solution, unveiled in May, will still require removing several buildings at the southern end of Main Street that sit over one of the streams that flows into the Patapsco River. But the plan chosen by Ball has elements that did not appear in Kittleman’s mitigation efforts, chief among them the construction of a 1,600-foot-long tunnel that will divert water away from the Hudson Branch, a tributary that feeds into the Patapsco. This effort would also reduce the amount of water left on Main Street in a 100-year storm to 1 foot, compared to 4.5 feet under the Kittleman plan. A final price tag for the plan has yet to be determined, but it could cost as much as $140 million.

Among Ellicott City’s stakeholders, the attitude toward the Ball administration’s new plan is cautious optimism. “We know not every building can be saved. We’re realistic in that sense,” says Redding. “I think that it’s [still] a heck of a lot, but it’s certainly a better plan than what we were presented with before.”

And Alicia Jones-McLeod, the executive director of the Ellicott City Partnership, a group that works with shop owners in the town, says many of the folks she works with are “looking forward to what’s next.”

“The business owners here are not monolithic,” Jones-McLeod says. “As far as what the plan is, that’s not nearly as important as feeling like the county and the people believe in Ellicott City, and that there’s work being done in order to make sure that people that live and work here are safe. I think that some of that work is being done and the business owners recognize that.”

But as with any massive civil project, there are lingering concerns. Liz Walsh, a county councilmember whose district includes the historic town center, believes that more needs to be done to curb the proliferation of development in the watershed above Ellicott City, which is characterized by lackluster stormwater management and the spread of suburban subdivisions. Building upon a development moratorium that was approved by the council after the 2018 storm, Walsh has introduced legislation that would put stricter regulations on new development in the watershed (while still allowing for flood-mitigation projects to move forward), and encourage builders to incorporate green infrastructure into their projects.

Maryland did not have dedicated regulations around stormwater management until 1985, so many of the older developments surrounding historic Ellicott City are lacking in things like proper drainage systems. While the stereotypical suburban developments that were built in the years since do abide by those regulations, the very existence of this type of housing—often created by clearing trees and other naturally absorbent elements, and replacing them with hardscaping like driveways—has negatively impacted the surrounding area. Meanwhile, developers are often granted waivers that let them skirt Howard County’s existing land-use regulations, which prohibit things like building too close to steep hills or streams; Walsh’s legislation would make those waivers harder to get.

“I can’t conceive of a universe where we would add to the volume of potential water when we haven’t done anything down here to mitigate what we’re already dealing with,” Walsh says.

The Washington Post via Getty Images

The idea of pulling back from development in the face of climate change is not new. Three communities in the New York City borough of Staten Island that were ravaged by 2012’s Superstorm Sandy have been largely demolished as part of a “managed retreat” effort to bring natural flood protections—marshes, porous land, and the like—back to the coastline.

Walsh’s legislation doesn’t go quite that far; she says her focus is “this pulling back from gray infrastructure and relying on green infrastructure—putting the premium and the value on green infrastructure.” But despite broad public support, it has proven unpopular with developers and lobbyists, and even has skeptics within the Howard County government.

“A lot of the development that occurs now is so highly regulated in terms of stormwater,” DeLuca says. “I think that the driver is really the storm more than anything else.” He points to a hydrology study commissioned by the county after the 2016 storm that found that if the area surrounding historic Ellicott City was undeveloped, and experienced the same level of rainfall as it did during that storm, it would have been inundated with as much as 80 percent of the stormwater that ultimately fell.

But Walsh doesn’t see her proposed regulations as merely a tool to curtail development; she also believes they will help protect Ellicott City from the unknown—that is, the certainty that future storms are coming, and the uncertainty of how destructive they will be. “We were using a 100-year storm, a 1,000-year storm for purposes of the legislation that’s pending now,” Walsh says. “We’re sticking to a finite description of X inches and X time. But we don’t know what the next one is going to be, so we don’t know what we need to engineer.”

That uncertainty remains the biggest concern for many of the people invested in the future of Ellicott City. The plan put forth by the Ball administration is expected to be implemented in full by 2025, and the county executive is optimistic about what it will do for this unique, historic community. “My goal is not only to help save Ellicott City and preserve it for the next 250 years,” Ball says, “but also to be a model for every other jurisdiction that is facing these challenges of how to move forward in an effective, unifying way.”

But there’s no telling if another storm will hit the area before all of those flood-mitigation efforts are put into place. The county’s office of emergency management has put new procedures into place to help alert residents to potentially dangerous weather events (including an alert system that rolled out over the summer, and new signage directing people to higher ground), but that will only go so far if another 1,000-year storm hits. “Every time there’s a threat of rain or a big thunderstorm, everybody kind of holds their breath about Ellicott City,” says Redding. “We need to fix that.”

Amy Plitt is a Maryland native who grew up in Ellicott City; now, she’s the editor of Curbed NY, and lives in Brooklyn.