One year after deadly flood, officials hope to defend Ellicott City against destruction in the future

Ellicott City was established nearly 250 years ago, but it only took a flash flood two hours to rip through Main Street on July 30, 2016 and blow out shop windows, sweep away possessions and ravage livelihoods.

Sally Fox Tennant's craft shop Discoveries is among those damaged stores. Her Main Street establishment is full of glass and porcelain, the kinds of items that were destroyed by last year's flood, costing her thousands of dollars in lost inventory and damages.


Tennant, who owns the property and lives above her storefront, has fought over the past year to salvage and strengthen her shop, which she reopened in November 2016.

She is not alone, as numerous merchants, residents and property owners have worked tirelessly over the past year to reopen their shops and attempt to prepare for future flooding. But ask Tennant if, one year after the flood, she feels any more ready for another storm, and she says with a sigh, "a little."

Those at Sweet Elizabeth Jane and several other retailers agreed that the Main Street business climate has changed indefinitely, but the flood was an opportunity to start from scratch and come back stronger.

"Every time it rains hard all of us have a knee jerk response," Tennant said. "I don't know if we'll ever have the luxury of not worrying."

Last year's flood, which unleashed six inches of rain on the city in two hours, has been designated a "1,000 year flood," by the National Weather Service, meaning there was approximately a .1 percent chance of it occurring. Residents have compared the disaster to Hurricane Agnes in 1972, when the storm submerged businesses and killed seven people. Last year's rainfall surpassed the most recent major flood in 2011, when Tropical Storm Lee dumped nearly five inches of rain on the town in slightly over two hours.

The city is hosting a variety of events to commemorate the first anniversary, including a 5k benefit race on Saturday morning followed by a dedication ceremony for the town's new clock in front of the B&O Railroad Museum. Several stores will also have special "thank you" pricing throughout the day on Saturday to show appreciation for the support from the community over the last year.

Howard County officials have spent millions of dollars and countless hours over the past year to restore structures damaged in the flood that killed two people and displaced nearly 200. The county's fiscal 2018 capital budget includes $1.8 million to be used for flood remediation efforts in Ellicott City and Valley Mede, bringing the county's total to $9.65 million allocated for flood mitigation efforts since fiscal 2016.

"I'm pleased with where we are, but we're definitely not done," County Executive Allan Kittleman said about flood restoration and mitigation efforts over the past year. Kittleman said the county is working to not only bring the town's infrastructure back to its previous state, but to make it stronger than it was before the flood.

Despite these efforts, though, the question remains whether the county has done enough to defend Ellicott City's residents and businesses against another major flood.


Construction efforts over the past year have focused largely on restoring damaged areas rather than on future flood mitigation, though some projects have included solutions on both fronts, said Mark DeLuca, deputy director of Howard County Public Works.

Currently, the county has started or completed 28 projects since last year's flood, ranging from reconstructing stream walls to upgrading storm drains.

Some of these efforts were started as a result of the flood, such as the hydrology and hydraulic study that was released in May. Others are the result of assessments conducted prior to last July, such as stream channel reformation at Tiber Park, one of a few projects underway based on recommendations from a 2014 study of the Tiber-Hudson stream corridor.

More projects will be announced soon as a result of recommendations from the H&H study, an assessment that is also a key aspect of the county's Ellicott City Watershed Master Plan. The master plan is meant to create a vision for the city's future over the next 20 years, including immediate, short-term and longer-term projects, Department of Planning and Zoning Director Valdis Lazdins said.

Master plan

DeLuca said that while the H&H study provided a macro-level analysis of flooding and potential flood mitigation in Ellicott City's 3.7-square-mile watershed, the master plan will look at possible solutions and projects on a more specific level.


At a public workshop on the master plan held July 11, officials explained that projects will include such things as subdividing geographic areas of the stream channel into six "reaches." Experts will then look at where particular water-flow constrictions are within each smaller reach and develop potential ways to address these problems.

The workshop also offered information on other aspects of the master plan, which includes efforts beyond flood mitigation. Other focus areas include physical planning, urban design, transportation, parking and economic development. Officials said at the meeting that they are now in the "active planning" phase of the process to create the plan, and that they hope to have it finalized by next spring.

The master plan is a major undertaking for the county as it plans the historic city's future. But for many residents and shop owners who have a stake in Ellicott City, any future planning remains focused on defense against potential flooding.

To help property owners prepare for floods, the county has contracted the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to conduct a flood proofing study, the results of which are expected to be released this fall. The study is aimed at providing nonstructural flood proofing recommendations to property owners for how to defend their land against future flooding. Nonstructural flood proofing are measures applied to a building to help prevent or decrease the effects of flooding, such as raising a structure or moving valuables to higher levels.

The study identified 15 to 20 buildings to use as prototypes to determine what kind of flood proofing measures are best for different properties in the area, such as the Howard County Welcome Center Headquarters, that can then be used as models for other property owners in the city, said Marco Ciarla, project manager from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

Results from the study are slated to be released this fall, Ciarla said. He said his team is also trying to focus its flood proofing recommendations on ones that are financially feasible for property owners, many of whom have already spent thousands of dollars to restore their buildings from flood damage sustained last year.

The measures that will be recommended from this study could help protect structures from flooding produced by smaller storms, but Ciarla said, it's important to note that the measures likely wouldn't do much to defend against another 1,000 year flood like the city saw in 2016.

"These wouldn't have necessarily prevented the July 30 storm because it was so big," Ciarla said. "[These are] measures they can implement to help them be a little more resilient in the future."


Despite the many projects, studies and plans, DeLuca said the best thing property owners can currently do to protect their buildings against flooding is to undertake some flood proofing actions now on their own, and to buy flood insurance in case those measures aren't enough if a storm strikes.

That's exactly what Barry Gibson, owner of the Forget Me Not Factory on Main Street, has done. Since the flood he's increased his flood insurance for the building and the store's inventory by 15 percent and undertaken some flood proofing measures, including adding drainage pipes that send water away from the building. Ciarla said another smart strategy for property owners is to install concrete flooring.

Gibson said he has been pleased with the presence the county has had since the flood, and that officials have been on the ground "since day one."

Tennant said she, too, has largely been satisfied with the county's efforts so far, especially given the short time frame since the flood, though she says the government still has a lot of work to do.

"What's a reasonable expectation?" Tennant said. "They're human."

Tennant said Kittleman and others need to continue to listen to the "core of the town," the residents and merchants, for their input. These are the people Tennant said have brought Ellicott City back over the last year.

"Out of the ruins you take a community that's done a remarkable job," she said. "[We've] pulled off a miracle."

Miracle aside, Tennant said the county needs to do whatever it takes to ensure Ellicott City doesn't face another disaster like last year, because property owners and merchants won't be able to bounce back the same way twice.

"We're exhausted," she said.