John Shoemaker’s livelihood hangs in the balance anytime it starts raining in Ellicott City.
There’s no part of Shoemaker’s life that’s left unscathed when rain leads to flooding in Howard County’s historic community. So when word got around that Tropical Storm Isaias was coming through the Mid-Atlantic last week, Shoemaker and many Ellicott City residents started what has become a regular process of preparation.
“There’s a lot of anxiety with the storms that we know about. We have a front-row seat to what’s going on,” Shoemaker said. “As soon as we realized it was coming toward us, we started making plans.”
Shoemaker had 6 feet of water in his home in the 2016 and 2018 floods that ripped through Ellicott City, which killed three people and caused severe damage. He knows what rain could mean for his business and for his family, and he’s not willing to take any risks. Both floods also caused the Tiber and New Cut streams to overflow in the community.
On Aug. 2, Shoemaker moved as much inventory out from his Main Street store as he could and sandbagged the doors and vulnerable spots around his business. At home, he packed up three days’ worth of clothes, food and baby supplies for his 2-year-old, Tommy. He dropped his pet bird off at a friend’s house and decided to keep his dog with the family.
“The ones we prepare for usually turn out OK; the ones we don’t know about usually hurt us,” Shoemaker said, describing the storms. “It doesn’t change the fact that we do what we can.”
On Aug. 3, the night Tropical Storm Isaias was set to appear in Ellicott City, Howard County’s Office of Emergency Management opened the Roger Carter Community Center in Ellicott City as a volunteer evacuation site for residents.
That night, Mike Hinson, director of Howard County’s Office of Emergency Management, was at the county’s Emergency Operation Center. From there, the emergency management office can monitor cameras 24/7, interface with the National Weather Service and ensure the emergency notification systems are operational.
“We are also extremely anxious, not in a bad way, but because we have the same worries [as residents],” Hinson said. “In 2016, you realized it could occur, but it wasn’t supposed to be something that could occur more than once in a lifetime. Then that narrative changes.”
Ultimately, Ellicott City residents saw a best-case scenario last week when Isaias swerved around the community.
“It’s worrisome because those types of storms are also inherently the toughest and the most tricky to predict,” Hinson said. “The hurricane went as well as can be expected.”
The ability to prepare for potential damage and flooding makes a difference, Hinson said.
“We dodged a bullet on this one, [but] it’s going to happen again,” said County Council Vice Chair Liz Walsh, who represents Ellicott City.
During the 2018 flood, Shoemaker was at his business with his father when the rain started; his wife, Marguerite Buzza, and Tommy were at home.
“In the past, we would have easily rode it out,” Shoemaker said. “Now, there’s a little one here, and we have to make sure we have everything for him and we get to a safe place before it gets dangerous.”
Christina Page also has a young son to worry about: her 19-month-old, Nate. Page, who lives in the West End section of Ellicott City, was pregnant during the 2018 flood.
“The thing I’m really concerned about is the emotional stress on Nate as he gets older,” Page said. “I know for a fact that it’s going to affect Nate at some point, too. How do we impress upon him the seriousness of this when it happens so regularly?”
Page bought her home about a month before the July 2016 flood and had a good idea of what to expect if historic flooding came through the community again. When it did in 2018, she and her husband, Jason, didn’t lose much because they knew not to store anything in their basement. In both 2016 and 2018, their basement was filled with 4½ feet of water.
Now she lives with the anxiety and fear that the next rainfall could lead to a historic flood, with a frequency that suggests it’s no longer historic; it’s just life in Ellicott City.
“It’s not a thousand-year storm anymore; it’s an every-two-year storm with little floods in between,” Page said.
When the rain begins to fall, Walsh worries about potential debris from construction sites in the historic community filling the channels. The Democrat said the county has done nothing to mitigate floods in the 20 months since she was elected.
In May 2019, Democratic County Executive Calvin Ball selected a $140 million flood mitigation plan from five potential proposals to ease future flooding. The Safe and Sound Plan would demolish four buildings and leave an average water depth of 3 feet on lower Main Street should a flood similar to 2016 happen again. A tunnel, 15 feet in diameter and 80 to 100 feet deep, from Lot F off Ellicott Mills Drive to the Patapsco River, is set to be constructed. The tunnel, running parallel to Main Street, would divert water cascading into the steep-sided valley during storms.
Before the county could raze the four buildings and tear down back portions of another six, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to complete an independent evaluation. The conclusions from that process were presented at a public meeting in March. The Army Corps compiled a detailed report examining the flood reduction management strategies, ultimately finding the county followed a “sound process” in its plans.
In April, the county acquired the final of the 10 total properties needed to proceed with the demolition phase of the Safe and Sound Plan. To complete the demolition and removal process of the 10 buildings, the county needs to complete the federal Section 106 process, which assesses concerns surrounding historic preservation.
Del. Courtney Watson, a Democrat who represents Ellicott City, said her job is to squeeze as much money from the state to pay for the Safe and Sound Plan as possible. This year, that resulted in $8.25 million in funding for the plan.
“There’s a lot of desire across the state to preserve this town and its history. That town has been there 250 years, and it’s one of the few remaining historic whole streetscapes,” Watson said. “With climate change, we have more of a challenge in helping the town, but I believe that the projects the county is building will help meet the challenge that climate change is giving us.”
While the bureaucratic processes of constructing a tunnel and razing buildings take time, Ellicott City residents say they’re stuck waiting for long-term solutions to a continual problem.
“I don’t have any sense that our government is going to move quickly enough to help us in any substantial way,” Page said. “That takes a toll on you.”
Ball has said he wants the Ellicott City Safe and Sound Plan implemented by 2025, but, as of now, there is no clear timeline. Howard County spokesperson Scott Peterson said Tuesday that the county would provide an update on the plan Aug. 27.
“We know what needs to be done. We know how much it costs, but we still do not build the projects that would make the town even a little bit safer to live and sleep in,” Walsh said.
In the meantime, Page keeps a checklist on her phone for the family’s “go bag.” The bag includes snacks for her husband, who has Type 1 diabetes, and Nate, as well as litter for the family’s two cats.
Wendy Pidel also keeps a checklist, a mental one. When she hears about incoming rain, her mind turns to setting up the house for potential flooding.
“We start checking in with neighbors to gauge everybody’s feelings and nervousness,” Pidel said. “We all take care of our own property, but we take care of each other’s, too.”
Pidel has lived in her Main Street home since 2014 with her husband, Adam, and two sons, Wyatt, 11, and Ben, 12. During the 2016 and 2018 floods, the family saw 3 feet of water outside its Ellicott City home and 1 inch inside.
After the two floods, the Pidels purchased a floodgate for the front door of their home with a watertight seal designed to prevent indoor water damage. They also have a routine in place for when rain begins.
The Pidels can evacuate to a safe room in the back of their house; from there, they can peer out the window and keep family and friends updated. Their home is one of two that is behind the Hudson Stream. The stream sits just 10 feet from the Pidels’ front door, so in emergency flooding situations they have to exit out the back of the house using a rope ladder to climb up.
“That makes us a little bit more anxious being behind the stream where everyone else is in front of the stream,” Wendy Pidel said.
When the rain from Isaias began last week, Page and her husband took turns during the night watching the water accumulate on the street. They constantly checked the back channels of communication that exist within the Ellicott City community to see whether the water was rising.
“I always have my phone close to me if it’s raining,” Page said. “It’s a matter of keeping an eye on it and knowing when to go.”
When there’s enough notice, as with Isaias, Page and Pidel are among the many residents who move their cars to a neighbor’s driveway ahead of an incoming storm.
In the 2018 flood, the water reached the door handle on Pidel’s Honda Pilot. Pidel still proudly drives the car. The dents from wood logs etched into the sides serve as reminders of what both she and the car have been through.
While Ellicott City residents were spared this time with Isaias, they know in all likelihood there will be another flood.
“If we go out of town, we’re wondering if we should take everything in from outside [and] put the floodgate up,” Pidel said. “People think they get it, but if they could spend a night in our shoes on a night like that, they’d get it.”
For Page, she’s left wondering how many more storms she can take living with the potential for devastating floods.
“We do have this gold mine when it comes to the community in Ellicott City, but you do have to balance it with the danger of living here,” Page said. “I don’t want to raise my kid in an area where he’s afraid every time it rains. The thought of leaving this community for safety issues is heartbreaking.”