It started around 7 a.m. Water, wind-blown and slowly creeping toward high-tide, bubbled up through storm drains and trickled toward businesses.
In the low-light of early morning on Oct. 24, Dock and Compromise streets transformed into wavy reflections of the buildings towering above them. As the sun rose and Dock Street storefronts lit up, a Starbucks employee waded out toward customers to deliver coffee. Storm Brothers Ice Cream Factory dammed up its door. The bronze children circling Alex Haley’s likeness perched in a few inches of standing water.
If something doesn’t change, every day in downtown Annapolis could be like that wet Tuesday, officials and scientists warn.
“In the state of Maryland, for the most part, we don’t update (comprehensive) plans but every 10 years,” said Lisa Craig, chief of historic preservation in the city Planning and Zoning Department. “If you look at what happened in the last high tide, that was fairly close to what we’d be looking at 10 years from now as up to an everyday thing if we don't have something in place.”
Craig and the Weather It Together initiative have spent four years researching, analyzing and gathering data. The result is a forthcoming report and this week’s Keeping History Above Water conference, where the focus will be on how Annapolis can protect not just “individual characteristics of a building,” but rather an “entire historical community,” Craig said.
The Weather It Together plan will propose actions that include from how to educate residents and business owners on flood risks to how to retrofit buildings to prevent water damage. The plan also endorses a 30-year master plan for sea level rise across the city, Craig said.
Though the conference is the culmination of Craig’s and other’s efforts, flood mitigation is nothing new. The 2009 comprehensive report and 2013 City Dock Master Plan reference the downtown vulnerabilities. The City Dock Master Plan proposes including a study like the one Weather It Together has produced, to staunch the nuisance flooding.
Annapolis experienced on average 39.3 floods a year between 2007 and 2013, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This marks a 925 percent increase from the average 3.8 floods a year between 1957 and 1963. Private and government studies predict anywhere from double to quadruple the number of flood days by 2050.
Annapolis has two problems: Water bubbling from below when high tide pushes the stormwater back up and out of storm drains, and water spilling over the top of the walls bordering the harbor and waterways. In the spring, the city contracted AECOM, an engineering firm out of Los Angeles, to plan and design a flood mitigation system that would address these problems.
The city will reconfigure the storm drain system so water coming in on both sides of Ego Alley goes through a pumping system, said David Jarrell, director of public works.
“That way, the water can’t backflow,” he said.
The city will also raise seawalls to prevent the slowly rising sea-level from cascading over top during high tide and storm events.
The city will award a full design contract, Jarrell said. That process will take until June 2018, when the city will seek permits. Construction is expected to begin in January 2019 and finish in June 2020.
The construction will cost an estimated $10 million, Jarrell said. The city secured $1 million from Gov. Larry Hogan’s budget toward the design and applied for a $3 million FEMA grant. Part of the city’s $6.5 million ask from the state will also go toward flood mitigation.
Annapolis will have to pitch in some money, Mayor Michael Pantelides said. But he plans to “lean on” state and federal partners for the bulk of the funding.
Gavin Buckley, who is challenging Pantelides for mayor, advocated for private partnerships.
“We have lots of seminars here and we have lots of experts come to the town, and I think that is admirable,” Buckley said. “But I think what we really need to be thinking is civic investment.”
Buckley, should he win the general election, said he’d be willing to learn more about the city’s plan but would want to take cues from Newport, Rhode Island. The coastal city produced its own Hazard Mitigation Strategy in 2008 with ranked flood mitigation priorities. The Newport Restoration Foundation partly sponsors the Keeping History Above Water conference.
The city, in conjunction with the conference, partnered with researchers from the University of Florida who took laser measurements of the downtown floodplain. The measurements will provide the city with accurate elevation measurements and allow the city to project potential flood conditions onto a realistic 3D map of parts of the Historic District. From the 3D projection, the city can create maps and drawings that will help visualize best and worst case scenarios in flood situations.
“In most coastal communities, documentation usually exists, but the documentation is a little older or needs more accurate data,” said Marty Hylton, Historic Preservation studies director at Florida. “It’s really critical if you’re going to map storm surge … or develop vulnerability assessment.”
Some property owners have already taken action to protect against flooding.
Leo Wilson, a principal at Hammond-Wilson architecture, said the firm designed projects at the Annapolis Yacht Club, the 110 Compromise St. property and the old Green Street Recreation Center with flooding in mind.
The Yacht Club rebuild, following a devastating fire, is designed using water-resistant building materials and with susceptible exterior infrastructure moved above the floodplain. The 110 Compromise St. property, the site of the former Fawcett Boat Supplies building, has been raised 20 inches from the existing grade and will be wrapped with a water-resistant sheathing and outfitted with flood vents that allow water to flow in and out of the building.
“When you’re spending the time and the money to do the job right, you need to consider this,” said Mike Keenan, an owner of the Compromise Street property.
Hammond-Wilson has also designed a perimeter garden wall that will keep water away from the old recreation center building, which has been renovated for condominiums.
Navigating city code can still be a challenge. Wilson said his firm had to be creative while working with the Yacht Club because of a discrepancy in the code governing building height in the Historic District. There are height restrictions that make it difficult to raise a historic building to prevent flooding, but the code offers “no mechanism” to do that if raising the building would put it over the height limit, Wilson said.
“It’s a big problem,” he said. “We’ve talked at length with the city. Everyone agrees it needs to be done, but it’s a lengthy process. It’s months of work and the Yacht Club is under duress.”
The Weather It Together plan proposes a “reevaluation of height limits and changes to city code to allow for a new design flood elevation height,” Craig wrote in an email.
Craig hopes the city in the next four years can “make sure there is an individual who is working through the established silos of government” to implement the Weather It Together plan.
“Are we prepared for some type of flooding disaster?” she said. “It’s not just the long-term sea level rise. It’s the things we’re not prepared for.”