It’s been more than a year.
For people who live and work in Howard County and its surrounds, that’s all that needs to be said.
They know that simple statement refers to the night of July 30, 2016, and the infamous Ellicott City Main Street flash flood. It was caused by six inches of rain in two hours, left two people dead and brought business, and life as the locals know it, to a halt for most of the next year.
Today, many of the necessary repairs have been made, some even ahead of schedule due to the storm. Businesses that returned are up and running, and many of the residents, workers and usual visitors are back on the street.
There is even said to be considerable activity concerning buying and leasing real estate on and around historic Main Street — where Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman recently announced an $18 million initiative to build four major flood mitigation projects (see sidebar) and presented County Councilman Jon Weinstein with a check for $50,000 for the One EC Recovery project.
While a recovery that was facilitated by the government and a great deal of community spirit are great things, the moods of Mother Nature will remain unpredictable and, given history and the effects of global warming, what happens next, and the ability of the community to withstand it, is up for ample discussion.
Even before the flood, there were upgrades in the works to the stream walls along Main Street.
“We were making sure they were clear of debris,” said Mark DeLuca, deputy director for the Howard County Department of Public Works (DPW). “That $18 million budget [for the first four projects] is mainly a result of the flood and had not been planned for the next budget.”
DeLuca said that DPW “also had some design money in its fiscal 2018 budget [which was developed after the flood]” that totaled $2 million and can “be used for design and beginning of construction, so we can hit the ground running.
“So, we’re moving forward,” he said, “but without the extra $2 million in the current budget, we couldn’t have started the design. By the time we finish the four designs, we would not be ready to build before July 2018, anyway.”
So, the county is “moving ahead as best we can,” said DeLuca. “The United States Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration provide us with the rain data. When their values go up, ours do too. So, we have gone from 7.4 inches per 24 hours for a 100-year storm last August up to 8.5 inches in 24 hours. That’s one example. So, all of the new projects will use that equation for the foreseeable future.
“We’d love to have all of the money at once, but that’s not how it works,” he said, “and no one can predict the weather, just as no one can say for certain if [last summer’s] 100-year storm will precede a megatrend.”
The Tech View
Key to the preparation for the $18 million in upgrades was the study conducted by civil engineering firm McCormick Taylor. Chris Brooks, senior water resources engineer at the firm’s Baltimore office, said the details of its Hydraulic and Hydrologic Study of Ellicott City (which can be found on the county’s web site) are “too voluminous” to summarize for a short quote.
But Brooks did offer, however, that “the effort necessary to accomplish substantial reductions in flood frequency and depth will require significant time and resources.”
As for what makes the lay of the land in Ellicott City different from other areas in the region, he added that, “The urbanized hydrology of the Tiber-Hudson Watershed is fairly common in the Baltimore/Washington corridor. However, the construction of the historic downtown area, on top of the stream and its floodplain, presents unique challenges from a hydraulic perspective.
“The combination of many older buildings directly straddling the sinuous stream channel, the complete lack of floodplain in many areas and the steepness of the well-developed terrain, combined with the urbanization upstream,” he said, “is not typical of other areas we’ve previously studied in Central Maryland.”
What Ned Said
Those unique circumstances and the early funding for a project are preceeding what will be years of work to make the Main Street area as flood resistant as possible. Ned Tillman, local businessman and past chair of the Howard County General Plan Task Force, said mitigation projects are just a “start on how to deal with a very unfortunate and complex problem.
“We could easily spend $100 million in engineering solutions and not solve the problems of this ill-sited town,” he said, adding, “and of course Ellicott City is not the only place that floods in this county.”
Therefore, Tillman said, “it’s time that we got real and talk about the root causes of this and other tragedies. We can no longer just think in terms of being reactive and trying to adapt to these increasingly common big storms that we have been experiencing.”
What is needed, he said, was “to get at the cause of the problem.
“The warming atmosphere is the culprit that we need to discuss. The warming is a local and a global problem [that will] require local and global solutions,” Tillman said. “We here in Howard County need to commit an equal amount of effort to preventing these big storms. Otherwise, we will just be playing a game of whack-a-mole.”
He said that, like towns all around the world, local residents “need to beef up efforts at getting governments, businesses and the citizens working together to slow down the warming.”
On that front, there is some good news.
“Our local government, many of our local businesses and an increasing number of our citizens are actively taking steps to reduce the warming,” he said, “but we need more leadership on this specific issue and more collaboration from all sectors of our county. Every individual, business and government that does nothing hurts the rest of us and hurts future generations living not only in old Ellicott City, but across the whole county and beyond.”
Today, Tillman said, these initial moves by Howard County are solid. “I think this is a good step, but I think we have to go after the root cause which is global, through study. It will flood again.”
Tillman and Weinstein are together on this approach. “I agree with Ned. The severity of the storms that are hitting our area are a result of global warming,” Weinstein said, who noted part of what facilitated the tragedy last August. “The water that rushes down through town had to turn left or right; but if it’s fast enough or high enough, it’ll knock you over,” he said, “so you want it to come straight through.”
Interestingly, a flood mitigation work group was commissioned by him and Kittleman right after they were elected in late 2014.
“Some of these ideas for projects started” before what he called the “horrible opportunity” that was provided by the flood.
“So we had to get the studies done and the money lined up,” Weinstein said. “The flood expedited some of these updates,” which he acknowledged are early steps. “We’ve already completed stream wall and underpass improvements. There are two more that will start this fall, one in the parking lot of the courthouse and another at the George Howard Building.
“We can’t manage what comes out of the sky. But we can deal with it the best we can,” which includes building bigger culverts and pipes, he said. “It’s hard to prevent flooding at the bottom of the river, since that’s just where the water goes.
“However,” he said, “I think we made more progress in the last three years than we have in many before.”
Spot Still Hot
Given the recent circumstances, an observer might think that people who wish to invest in downtown might be hesitant about doing so. Not so, said Karen Besson, board chair for the Ellicott City Partnership.
“We’re at about a 7% vacancy rate downtown,” Besson said, noting that, while “people express concerns about another flood, there are never a shortage of people who want to open a business in Ellicott City. Reconstruction continues in concert with the master plan, which should be available in draft form in the fall and will include information about flood mitigation.
“Some property owners who rebuilt did so in a way to better prepare for weather hazards,” Besson said, “so people are continuing to invest here.”
That’s good news from within what is “a tough issue, for sure,” said Jim Caldwell, director for the Howard County Office of Community Sustainability, who thinks the county has spent a great deal of time in trying to comprehend and learn from not only the flood, but 2011’s Tropical Storm Lee.”
So the next challenge, Caldwell said, is managing the water flow by adding impoundments that hold water and release it slowly, so it doesn’t cause downstream flooding. That’s all a far cry from anything the Ellicott Brothers imagined when they came to town in 1772, he said, “because of the four tributaries at the base of the Patapsco, all going into the Tiber River, when the water powered various mills.”
Noting that the town “has flooded 30-to-40 times since,” Caldwell pointed out that the issue now is that Ellicott City [has evolved into] a residential and business community, and the size of the storms and their frequency seems to be increasing.
“So the point now,” Caldwell said, “is to manage the water.”