Nestled between the Hudson, Tiber and New Cut branches of the Patapsco River, Ellicott City sits in a valley of granite with walls that funnel the waters through the community to merge with the Patapsco.
On a quiet day, it would be hard to tell that water flows under and around the mix of specialty stores, restaurants, galleries and antique shops along Main Street. Glimpses of yellow signs featuring a figure running to higher ground are the first clue. The 10 vacant buildings at the bottom of Main Street — gutted by deadly floods in 2016 and 2018 — solidify water’s dangerous presence in the historic district.
Thirty significant floods have been recorded in the area, including one in 1768 before the community’s official founding in 1772, according to research by the Howard County Historical Society.
Yet, Ellicott City still stands and, in 2022, will celebrate its 250th anniversary.
State and local officials are now working together to ensure the historic community will survive another 250 years, despite being located in a flood plain.
A groundbreaking ceremony attended by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Howard County Executive Calvin Ball earlier this month marked the start of the multi-phased Ellicott City Safe and Sound flood mitigation plan. Estimated to cost between $113 million to $140 million, the plan includes the creation of several dry ponds, the installation of a mile-long underground tunnel and the demolition of four Main Street buildings to provide space for the creation of a new culvert.
“This is a very, very large capital project and will take a long time to implement,” said Shaina Hernandez, senior adviser for policy for Howard County government. “We will try to get it done as soon as humanly possible.”
To fund the plan, the county sent a letter of intent to apply for Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act funding from the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year. If approved, the county can file an application to borrow up to 49% of the cost of the Safe and Sound plan. The remaining 51% would be funded by the county and through other sources. The county would not have to repay the loan until construction is complete.
The state has committed more than $20 million to Howard County to assist in flood mitigation and resilience efforts, including $2.4 million for the creation of the 13-acre-foot H7 pond, which began Aug. 16 at the Route 40/Route 29 interchange. Designed to hold water and then release it slowly once the danger has passed, five dry flood ponds, ranging in size from the 10-acre-foot Quaker Mill pond off Rogers Avenue to the 70-acre-foot T1 pond on the Tiber tributary, are included in the plan. Each acre-foot is approximately 326,000 gallons of water.
“Down where all the rivers come together, there will be significantly less flow,” said Mark DeLuca, deputy director of the Howard County Department of Public Works. “The ponds … will keep the volume of water down so you don’t get massive flooding.”
The north tunnel, which Ball calls the “single most impactful project in our Safe and Sound plan,” will be buried 60 feet to 80 feet down, starting at the 8800 block of Frederick Road and running parallel to Main Street for 5,000 feet to exit at the Patapsco River. Ranging between 12 feet and 15 feet in diameter, the tunnel will help maintain the Hudson’s water levels by splintering the water flow during heavy rains to prevent the branch from flowing over its banks.
Originally designed to be shorter, the tunnel’s length was extended, according to DeLuca, to save several historic buildings. Other historic buildings will have to have the back portions of their buildings removed as they are built over the Tiber branch.
“They are a severe obstruction to the flow of water,” DeLuca said.
“All of these waterways collect here to channel to the Patapsco,” said Zach Hollenbeck, with the county’s Department of Public Works, as he stood near the B&O train station by the river. “The new culvert will allow water to move into two drainage points.”
All of these projects are scheduled to begin over the next three years depending on approvals, design plans and permits. The WIFA loan requires all projects to be completed within five years of receiving the loan.
“Understand the time it takes to get designs through and permits,” DeLuca said. “There are a lot of challenges to it.”
‘We are very vigilant’
Donna Sanger, who co-owns Park Ridge Trading Company on Main Street with her daughter Julia Sanger, realizes it takes time to get projects done, especially with the coronavirus pandemic in the mix, but she is not sure she can stick it out through another flood.
“It’s been very frustrating, the pace at which things are proceeding,” said Donna Sanger, a former federal prosecutor. “I am happy to see work has begun. I wish it could have happened a year ago.”
The Sangers’ business had only been open two weeks when the first flood hit in July 2016. It reopened afterward, only to have the second flood in May 2018 do more damage than the first. In its first five years, the store has not yet been open for 12 consecutive months, she said.
“I felt an obligation to come back one more time,” Sanger said. “It is a very dedicated community. If there is another flood, I just won’t. It is too stressful.”
The county has done a better job cleaning the storm drains, she said. Once cleaned quarterly, Ellicott City’s drains are now cleaned of debris after every storm with sustained wind gusts, DeLuca said. The county also has installed fencing and bollards, which are vertical posts, to help prevent cars and other objects, including dumpsters, from floating away, he said.
“The water picks up all the garbage and brings it down,” DeLuca said. “We have to manage debris.”
The state-funded public alert system, which is meant to warn of potential flooding in the historic district, has been an important new tool, according to Barry Gibson, owner of the Forget-Me-Not Factory, a gift shop known for its magic bubbles, on Main Street.
“That’s a great thing,” Gibson said. “It’s like a fire alarm. The message goes out.”
To help evacuate the street in the event of a flood, Gibson gave the county access to his private alleys. Now, when the alarm goes off, the gates on his alleys fling open to provide access to higher ground.
“That works out pretty well,” Gibson said. “Down at this end of the street, there is no place to go. It’s a pretty positive thing.”
For his own peace of mind, Gibson installed three flood-proof doors and three flood-proof windows in his store using county grant money to help offset the cost of $7,500 for each one.
“They have been tested for 8 feet of water,” he said. “They are guaranteed.”
He said he also “almost dug a moat” around his store after water came in from the walls during the 2016 and 2018 floods.
“All my floors have sump pumps,” Gibson said.
“He is the perfect example of what we wanted businesses to do,” said Hollenbeck, of the public works department. “He is an inspiration for other businesses.”
The county is taking the necessary steps to help address the problem, Gibson said.
“I like how they fixed the retaining walls at New Cut Road,” he said. “It lets the water come down more freely.”
He also understands why the four lower Main Street buildings have to be removed.
“I saw what happens when water comes down. It comes right at them,” Gibson said. “You gotta do what you gotta do. It’s unfortunate.”
Shawn Gladden, executive director of the Howard County Historical Society, said the Ball administration has been the most active in addressing the flood issues.
“We looked through our archives and there were discussions and a lot of talks, but after a year or so, the projects go away, usually because they were too expensive,” Gladden said. “There is still a long, long way to go, but they are attempting to address the issue.”
None of the plans can stop a flood from occurring though. Their purpose, really, is to prevent a disaster by controlling and redirecting the flow of water and preventing debris from crashing through. Instead of 6 feet to 8 feet of water rushing down Main Street, hopefully only 3 feet of water will come down, Hernandez said.
“This will help,” Hernandez said. “If another storm does come, people can be safe. There are more opportunities.”
Chris Pineda, executive director of the Ellicott City Partnership, a nonprofit that represents the businesses and residents of the historic district, is pleased to see the county administration is moving forward with the Safe and Sound plan and attended the groundbreaking for the H7 pond last week.
Everyone, however, will always keep an eye on the weather.
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“We are very vigilant,” Pineda said. “When things are uncertain, it is time to close the doors for the day. Safety first.”