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For flood-prone Ellicott City, study lays out ideas to make buildings more ‘resilient’

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

Since the deadly July 2016 flood in Ellicott City, Ron Peters has spent $150,000 on restoration and flood proofing measures to not only repair the damage, but protect his three properties in historic Ellicott City against floodwaters.

Peters has built higher walls along the creek channels in the back of the duplex property he owns on Frederick Road and is planning to build a wall around the foundation of the building to help keep water out.

The duplex and a commercial building he owns on Main Street, the Howard House, were two of 16 buildings surveyed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determine potential ways residents in the Ellicott City floodplain can brace their buildings for future flooding.

The study, released earlier this month, includes recommendations for each of the 16 buildings surveyed, so that other residents can match their own property to the most similar building in the study and implement the measures as they wish, said Marco Ciarla, project manager for the Corps of Engineers.

The buildings chosen are from throughout the floodplain on Main Street and Frederick Road and include commercial and residential properties.

“The idea is, what can homeowners do immediately to their buildings to make their building more resilient, especially to smaller storms?” Ciarla said. “Because honestly the area is very flood prone. Flood proofing will allow you to be a little bit more resilient and focuses on your building specifically.”

Recommendations range from smaller efforts, such as moving valuables out of basements and onto higher shelves, to major renovations including elevating the foundation of a building.

The $150,000 study includes cost estimates for the primary methods it recommends for each building, beginning at $20,000 and rising to $190,000.

“[Flood proofing] may cost a little bit upfront, but over a 50-year time period it’s projected to be cost-effective,” Ciarla said. “Even though some of these projects were over $100,000 and a lot of members may not be able to afford that right away, just consider how much money was lost when they were displaced for months, the damages.”

The county is not offering any grant funding or other economic programs to pay for the suggested flood proofing measures and while the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Maryland Emergency Management Agency have a few grant funding options, residents would likely have to pay for the projects on their own, according to Mark Richmond, a project manager in the Department of Public Works.

Ciarla emphasized that the measures suggested in the study still likely won’t save properties from damages if another massive storm similar to the July 2016 flood strikes.

Some residents have concerns about being able to protect their buildings while still following the regulations of the county’s historic preservation commission, which must approve all exterior alterations of buildings in the historic district, with attention to those facing Main Street.

Nine of the 16 buildings included recommendations for dry flood-proofing methods, which can include installing interior or exterior flood doors and panels or adding an outer barrier to a building to stop water from getting inside.

Gayle Killen’s home on Frederick Road was one of those surveyed, the Army Corps recommended she dry flood-proof her home, with an estimated cost of $50,000. The study recommended she build a concrete wall around a coal chute in the front of her property and install flood-proof doors and windows on the exterior of her building.

While Killen said she’d like to install the doors and windows, she said it’s been “frustrating” to try to make additional changes to the house because of its location in the historic district. She wants to focus on bracing her home against the next big storm.

“Why are we even talking about the everyday storm?” she said. “People are already going broke trying to survive these events, why are we suggesting that they throw more money at something that’s just going to get ripped out again?”

Allan Shad, chair of the Howard County Preservation Commission, said people should coordinate early with the county’s full time preservation staff in the Department of Planning and Zoning. Shad said the commission tries to be flexible in working with property owners, but that it must ultimately maintain the historical integrity of the area.

“We’re certainly aware of the concerns that everybody has about flooding, but it just depends on what options are out there. We need to review where [the building] is, where it’s impacted and what the options are that they’re proposing to use,” Shad said. “If someone wants to just put up a steel door where a historic wood door was, we’re definitely going to be more in favor of something that looks more appropriate to the style [of the district].”

Beth Burgess, chief of the Department of Planning and Zoning’s resource conservation division, said the department works with residents as much as possible to ensure their plans meet historic guidelines, especially for property facing Main Street. Burgess said no one has ever been denied an alteration application since the flood, but that no residents have applied to install any historically compromising material on a Main Street-facing building front, such as installing a steel door in place of a wooden original.

“We want to deal with flooding as best as possible, we want win-wins, but we don’t want to lose our historic character,” Burgess said.

Killen said she’s focusing her energy on making the interior of her house more resilient to flooding, including adding cement insulation to the bottom floor of her house.

“My dream has always been to find an old home, with those great strong bones, and renovate it for efficiency, to be a forever home that’s healthy to live in and that will last,” Killen said.

Peters said the suggestions for his properties, including to elevate the foundation build a barrier wall around one of the front porches, were helpful, but that he’s chosen to modify the recommendations because of the high cost. The estimate to elevate Peters’ residential property was $110,000; he’s decided instead to build a wall around the building.

Richmond said the county is not mandating or officially recommending residents undertake any particular suggestions, but that the survey is meant to show them options.

The survey is one of a number of projects and studies that have been underway since the 2016 flood, including a hydrology and hydraulic study that identified 18 possible stormwater projects, estimated to cost $85 million overall.

The county has spent more than $10 million on repairs to sidewalks, roads and bridges damaged by the flood and no statistics are readily available on private property damages or losses. An estimated $42 million was lost in economic activity, such as the loss of business while stores were closed due to damage or stores that chose not to reopen in the historic district.

Three projects are currently in the design phase, Richmond said, including retention ponds planned for near the interchange of Routes 40 and 29 and near the Tiber Branch, as well as the installation of pipes in the west end of the historic district to direct water away from buildings. The three projects are estimated to cost $12.2 million, according to Richmond; no completion dates have been announced for any of the projects.

“The flooding issue in Ellicott City is an issue that one particular project is not going to solve. It’s going to have to be a combination of things the county can look into and do and that the private property owner can look into on their own,” Richmond said. “There’s not a single silver bullet that’s going to make it stop flooding.”

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