Howard County Times
Howard County

After second deluge in five years, flood-weary Ellicott City weighs how to adapt and prepare

For the second time in five years, a deluge so large that meteorologists expect it only once in hundreds of years hit Ellicott City on Saturday, leaving residents and Howard County officials to ask: Can anything be done to fortify the historic valley town against extreme flooding in the future?

The old mill city has rebuilt and adapted after damaging floods regularly since the 1800s — most recently, when the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee drenched the region in 2011.


County Executive Allan Kittleman, expecting more storms ahead, gathered experts and $2.5 million last year to brainstorm how to shield homes and businesses from floodwaters.

Some have suggested building parking garages engineered to catch stormwater that would otherwise wash down Main Street, or allowing floodwaters to pass more easily through the basements beneath historic storefronts, instead of filling them up. Kittleman's group endorsed adding more stormwater ponds and underground pipes.


But even if the lessons of the floods in 2011 had been applied, it was unclear Monday that it would have made a difference when 61/2 inches of rain within two hours sent water roaring through town, sweeping away cars, destroying businesses and killing two people.

"Nothing that could have been done over the last four or five years would have stopped this from happening," said Howard County Councilman Jon Weinstein, a Democrat who represents Ellicott City. "This would have overwhelmed the most modern of systems."

Now, as county officials and community leaders survey the massive sinkholes, ruptured water and gas mains, and gutted buildings, they must decide how and what they will repair and replace and whether they should prepare for a flood as bad as Saturday's — or one that is worse.

"We're going to have to look at, is there some way we can adapt to what look like changing rain patterns?" said James Caldwell, the county's director of community sustainability. "Six inches of rain in two hours is an unnatural event that none of us are used to and have never had to deal with."

Flooding has plagued Ellicott City at least as far back as 1811, said Shawn Gladden, executive director of the Howard County Historical Society. An 1868 inundation killed 43 people.

The memorable floods from Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972 were the second-deepest on record, but relatively placid, as the Patapsco spilled over its banks.

Many of the most devastating disasters — including Saturday's — came as water poured into the valley of the Tiber River. The Patapsco tributary runs through the heart of Ellicott City's downtown, passing through and underneath the Main Street corridor.

The town is prone to that sort of flooding because it's built almost entirely on granite, with little soil to absorb water in a big storm. Water comes in from all directions but the east, where the Patapsco is forced into a narrow ravine between Ellicott City and neighboring Oella.


That has always presented engineering challenges. But with three devastating floods within a generation, the possibility of more to come is changing the way the community is approaching reconstruction.

Michael Scott, a geography professor at Salisbury University, co-wrote a report on flood risks for Howard County in 2010.

"There's about to be a very involved discussion about: How should we build it back? Should we be building it back the way we did before?" Scott said. "It's a very involved conversation with no right answers."

The group Kittleman called together last year laid out $18 million in projects the county could pursue, including the construction of stream walls, flood-proofing historic buildings and rebuilding a channel beneath the Tiber Park Bridge. The group also recommended adding audible and visual alarms at the point where the Tiber merges with the Hudson River, another Patapsco tributary.

Others in the community have suggested other measures.

Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who lives in Howard County, said he thinks the culverts that carry the Tiber River through the town should be widened.


Don Reuwer, a developer who owns or co-owns more than a dozen buildings in Ellicott City, said he met recently with Weinstein and discussed turning several large, flat parking lots into parking garages with intricate stormwater management systems beneath them.

Scott said the town could build flood walls separating sidewalks from the roadway on Main Street to channel floodwaters down the roadway to the Patapsco more quickly. Or some buildings could incorporate flood vents in their lower floors, allowing water to pass through the buildings, he said.

Some residents wonder if more should be done to counteract growing development around Ellicott City's historic district, which is likely sending more floodwaters downstream.

A decade ago, 28 percent of the area that flows directly to the Tiber and Hudson rivers was paved, the county reported, and there has been more development since, much of it clustered along College Avenue.

"The Tiber, when that gets overflowed, it comes down Main Street like the Colorado rapids," said Lisa Markowitz, who leads a civic group called the People's Voice. The Ellicott City woman suggested changes to stormwater retention ponds uphill from the town center, because when they're full, they do little to limit the flow downstream.

After so many floods over the years, this one could present an opportunity for more substantive change because so much of the downtown area is already torn up.


"Now that the street is open literally and a lot of infrastructure is exposed, it makes the effort that is ahead of us necessary and effective," Weinstein said. "Going forward, the choice, to some extent, has been made for us. We have to repair the historic district."

But in parts of town, some said, there might be no choice but to submit to Mother Nature.

Marsha McLaughlin worked in the county's Department of Planning and Zoning for 27 years, the last 13 years as its director, until Kittleman took office last year.

"The challenge, obviously, is that in this day and age, nobody would ever build Ellicott City," she said. "It sits in a bowl."

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Many say Ellicott City will never look as it did before Saturday's storm — that some of the five or six buildings that the floodwaters demolished should not be rebuilt.

Deepa Srinivasan, the private consultant who co-wrote the county flood report with Scott, said the best solution for some frequently flooded buildings is to tear them down and turn them into park space.


There has been talk about rebuilding on higher ground, perhaps near the Howard County Circuit Court building, which sits high atop the town.

"It would be a replica of something architecturally compatible with the old town that might help keep whatever was left alive," McLaughlin said. "But it wouldn't be the same."

Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood, Erin Cox and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.