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The Politics of Disaster

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When disaster strikes, as happened in the Ellicott City deluge July 30, we expect government to respond in a massive way.

And when government responds in a massive way, things often get complicated and sometimes they get political.

Fortunately, politics in the Ellicott City disaster has been more cooperative than contentious. But there have been points of tension nonetheless, especially between County Executive Allan Kittleman and the Howard County Council, where the four Democrats, particularly Chairman Calvin Ball, have complained they are not being as well informed and as quickly as they’d like.

This may be just be the usual tension between legislators and executives, with a tinge of partisanship between the Democratic council members and the Republican county executive.

Executives typically are the public face of disaster response. Legislators handle the phone calls and questions from constituents, along with providing oversight and enabling legislation.

Face of the Response

Kittleman certainly has been the face of the county’s response, in the oldest and most historic part of Howard County, for all the region to see on TV. His voice is amplified on social media by a savvy communications staff. He is the one holding press conferences and providing updates, much as Democrat County Executive Ken Ulman was the calm, steady voice during the aftermath of the shootings at The Mall in Columbia in 2014.

As scary as that murder scene was, the Ellicott City flash flood — six inches of rain in two hours, two dead, dozens rescued, hundreds displaced from homes and businesses — is larger, far more lasting and complicated. We are now seeing only the beginning of recovery, and all sides are pitching in.

Gov. Larry Hogan was on the scene the next day and has been back again, with aid in hand and many different state resources at his command. It was he who had to request the federal disaster declaration from President Obama. That is still under review, with some legal issues to resolve, but several federal agencies are already working on the issues.

These federal disaster designations, granting access to a number of aid programs, are not an automatic slam dunk. Hogan was turned down twice when he sought a similar declaration for Baltimore after last year’s riots.

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings was on the scene pronto, as were the two U.S. senators in the first couple days. Legislators from both parties were pulling together. After all, these were their constituents, too.

The business community responded, as did private community service agencies, the charities, and literally thousands of individuals.

Smart Move

In a move that was both smart politically and reassuring to many, Kittleman called on former Howard County Executive Jim Robey, a Democrat with whom he had served in the state Senate, as special adviser heading a committee on the recovery.

But six months or a year from now, when business is back to sort of normal, it is Kittleman who will get the praise or blame for how well the recovery went. If it’s a huge success, there will be many who contributed to it; if there are major problems, the executive will be the first to catch the heat.

“I’m the last person that deserves credit,” Kittleman said at a Main Street press conference late last month, asking for nominations of people who should be recognized for their help, or even heroism.

Kittleman insisted, “We’re not going to listen to those who don’t want to rebuild.”

Not Just Another Town

Ellicott City was not just a town, but a place you take people when they come to town. When you walked up and down Main Street, you felt connected to the past. It was both quaint and yet worn enough in some spots to feel like a 200-year-old mill town. You could buy some trinkets or antiques, and you could grab some food, from sandwiches and ice cream to an elegant meal on white tablecloths.

The B&O Railroad station museum is not just one of the first rail stations in America, it was the first destination a train took people to in the United States. And Main Street was part of the first national highway.

The Ellicott brothers located their mill at that spot on the map in the 18th century to harness the fast-flowing Patapsco River, which narrows there.

From every approach to the oldest part of Ellicott City, the roads run steeply downhill, as do the stream beds, and that’s the way the downpour runs into the Patapsco. A detailed story by the Baltimore Sun in the aftermath found that much of the development of the Ellicott City area sits at the top of those slopes. This adds to the impervious surfaces that drain into the streams like the Tiber River, which runs parallel to Main Street, and increases the need for more and better stormwater management uphill — not just downhill, where it has done all the damage. Kittleman will have to tackle this problem as well, as part of the larger state and federal push for better control of the water quality that runs into the bay.

Taking another step back to look at what caused the Ellicott City disaster were environmentalists who point to the increase in violent weather events and massive rain across the United States from global warming. There’s not much that Howard County can do about that, if such events continue and six inches of rain in two hours is not just a thousand-year event. But climate change suggests that the stormwater that periodically flooded Ellicott City for centuries will get worse, not better.

The county council seems inclined to pursue such broader issues, even as it demands answers on much smaller questions.