Three years after the flood, Ellicott City residents look for answers

When the rain came to Ellicott City three years ago, it descended on the town in powerful droves, unleashing nearly five inches in a little more than two hours.

Clogged by debris from the banks, the historic district's aging channels reached a choke point, and with nowhere to go, the water poured onto the streets and into parking lots and basements, destroying radiators and air conditioning units, family photos and high school love letters.

By the time the tail end of Tropical Storm Lee had passed through on Sept. 7, 2011, many homes and businesses, particularly those in the town's west end, were looking at significant destruction.

"It was like the sky opened up and dumped all this water at one time," recalls Frank Durantaye, a west end resident who owns an office on Main Street. "In my 27 years [living in Ellicott City], I never had that kind of water."

"It was a river in front of the building," said Kevin Bloom, an employee at West End Services on Frederick Road. "You couldn't walk on it. It would wash you away."

There hasn't been a flood of the same magnitude in Ellicott City since, but extreme weather and instances of flooding appear to be on the rise nationwide. Heavy downpours – storms, for example, that would previously have been expected once every 20 years – are projected to come once every four to 15 years by the end of the century, a change that would result in 10 to 25 percent more rain per storm, according to a recent report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

With storm clouds looming, so to speak, many residents and business owners in Ellicott City are anxious to find solutions.

Three years after the storm, the county has increased its investment in stormwater management projects, though there is still no clear path forward for the town, no action plan to ward off a repeat of the flood damage.

"It is a challenge," said Jim Caldwell, stormwater manager for Howard County. "I think that the depth of the challenge is kind of defined by the fact that if somebody wanted to build Ellicott City today, you couldn't do it."

Tackling the issue of flooding in Ellicott City is a "multiheaded monster," according to Caldwell: Officials have to consider the town's hilly topography and historic district status as well as the cost of possible solutions.

Currently, he said, the county is taking a "bit-by-bit" approach.

"When we can, we're finding places to trap a little more stormwater," he said.

Caldwell pointed to resurfacing at parking lot E, behind the Ellicott Mills Brewing Co., with more pervious pavement, which is part of a larger project to build steps that lead from Main Street to the Circuit Courthouse on the hill above.

There are also plans to redo lot F, he said.

Beyond that, Caldwell added, the county is "looking to assist the community in trying to come up with a methodology to maintain the stream bed itself." Blockage in the Tiber Hudson tributary of the Patuxent River caused by debris clogging the channels in the old town is a serious concern for both the county and neighbors.

One of the hurdles county officials have encountered, Caldwell said, is that a lot of the land surrounding the stream bank is privately owned, which leads to access and funding problems. Per the county charter, the money collected through a new stormwater utility is public money that can't be used on private property, according to Caldwell.

Durantaye and Bloom are unswayed by the private property argument. Both say they've observed flooding worsen in recent years with the arrival of new development above the historic town.

"It's a matter of safety; it's a matter of priorities," Durantaye said. "There's so much development right on the watershed, and no matter what [owners] do to their property there's going to be a tremendous amount of water coming down. It's like somebody rear-ending you with a car and then saying, 'Well, it's your car.'"

"It's frustrating, as a business that operates in the county," Bloom said. "There has to be something that can be done. If they wanted to figure something out then there's legal ways of going in to try and improve flow."

The county has commissioned several studies to look for ways to mitigate flooding since 2011. A variety of solutions, ranging from small projects, such as rain barrels and rain gardens, to larger ones like building a bioretention pond, have been floated.

Many neighbors support building a pond in the center of the cloverleaf connecting Route 40 and Route 29, a solution proposed by a 2011 county-commissioned study.

In preparing the study, Baltimore-based consulting and engineering firm McCormick Taylor concluded that "the greatest reductions in flooding... would be achieved with the stormwater management pond concepts."

Yet the ponds wouldn't be a cure-all, the engineers said. They would "offer incremental, though not dramatic, reductions in flood elevations during a historical event like Tropical Storm Lee."

Howard County officials, including County Executive Ken Ulman, have said modeling shows that a retention pond on the cloverleaf likely would not make a big enough impact to justify its construction. It also could cost the county millions of dollars and would require permission from the Maryland State Highway Administration, which owns the cloverleaf.

"We don't want to do projects and then have them not actually work in a storm," Ulman said in December at a budget hearing. He insisted cost wasn't the problem; instead, "It was even if we do it in a big storm event it wouldn't really help."

"You would almost need a lake" to collect all the rain flowing toward Ellicott City in a heavy storm, said Lori Lilly, a former employee of the Center for Watershed Protection who continues to work on stormwater issues as an operations manager with Howard County's Youth READY program, which hires local teens and young adults to work on environmental projects.

"We just don't have that kind of space," she said. "Even if we [built ponds] in the cloverleafs, it still wouldn't be enough to help downtown. It's pretty daunting."

Durantaye, the west end resident, said even incremental improvements would help the community. Though a model the county presented to him showed that a pond on the cloverleaf wouldn't save his own house from flooding in a major storm, "that didn't deter me. It would have helped my neighbors, businesses downtown," he said.

Lilly favors a different solution, one that she believes could produce more results for less money.

In the channels that funnel the Tiber Hudson through the city, the county could install rock weirs — low dams — to help direct the flow of water "so that instead of the water hitting these crumbling walls over and over again, [the weir] channels the water to the middle so that you're getting less stress on the sides," she suggests. And, she added, the county could potentially receive grant money for those types of projects.

In the past few months, neighbors said, the county has tried another method, possibly the most cost-effective of all, though it has generated controversy. In some of the most flood-prone areas, Howard officials have offered to buy homes from their owners.

County spokesman David Nitkin confirmed that the county had approached some residents but couldn't give any additional details.

"To protect and preserve land in the Tiber Hudson watershed, Howard County has contacted some owners whose property has been flooded to determine their interest in a potential sale," Nitkin said in an email. "Per county policy and law, we would not discuss individual discussions or negotiations until any transactions are completed."

Durantaye said he was distressed by that approach. "It's historic Ellicott City," he said. "It's not just for the residents and the businesses. Isn't it worth protecting?"

He and other residents said they know they will never be completely safe from flooding.

"We're not living in a dream world here," Durantaye said. "We just want to stop flooding from the 10-year storms, 20-year storms that are coming more often and are messing up our properties and our lives."

In the meantime, Lilly is taking the tack of encouraging a more proactive approach to mitigating flood damage. As part of the Ellicott City Historic District Partnership's Clean, Green and Safe committee, she is helping organize a free flood mitigation workshop on Thursday, Sept. 18 from 6:15 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Roger Carter Center.

"There's still plenty of things we can do to retain and contain water and it will have a measurable impact," Lilly said. "It's not going to stop the problem, but I think if we [do] a lot of education and outreach about it, we can at least make it a little bit better."

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