The advertisement wooed buyers to Woodlawn Estates, a new Baltimore County subdivision, where $10,800 bought a three-bedroom rancher on a large, landscaped suburban lot.
The lots, the brief ad in a 1954 edition of The Sun also noted, were “approximately 400 feet above sea level.”
If only that could have protected Lenore Court from the floods that would come half a century later.
What became one of Baltimore’s early beltway communities is now among those confronting a grave decision in the face of climate change and the increasingly intense storms pounding the region — whether to give up on their homes.
Faced with repeated floods of a stream that one researcher called a warning sign for others in urban watersheds, residents finally asked the county to buy them out so they could move on. In early February, the county finished leveling the six homes.
“Nothing was going to get any better,” said Phyllis Vaughn, who lived on Lenore Court for 21 years.
More than 50 properties across the state have been acquired and demolished through a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant program over the past decade, according to state officials. FEMA has paid $14 million for those efforts, including nearly $1 million on Lenore Court, in hopes of preventing catastrophic losses in future natural disasters in Maryland.
A 2018 federal law allows FEMA to set aside money each year to buy and demolish properties in harm’s way, or to lift them up above potential floodwaters. The amount of money is 6% of the agency’s spending on disaster assistance in the previous year.
As sea levels rise and rainstorms intensify, the government is preparing for more such choices in the future.
“There’s no simple answers to this, but in Maryland we’re being pushed to come up with answers a lot sooner than other communities are,” said Nicholas Redding, executive director of Preservation Maryland.
Vaughn, 70, said she was drawn to Lenore Court because it was a tranquil spot, yet close to everything. She and her husband would sit outside their back door occasionally, looking out on the woods and a bubbling brook.
But the stream wasn’t so calm one afternoon in July 2004. About 5 inches of rain fell within two hours across the area, and as it surged down branches of what is known as the Dead Run, the waters rose quickly into the homes. It seemed like it had only been raining for 10 minutes when there was suddenly 6 inches of water in Vaughn’s house, she said.
More recently, floodwaters have become persistent. The water rose into backyards during the same storm that devastated Ellicott City in July 2016. Vaughn remembers another storm threatening her home in 2017, because it was the same day she buried her mother.
“Every time it would storm in the summer, we’d say, ‘Oh God, here we go again,’” Vaughn said.
By May 2018, the residents were ready to give up. The same storm that wrecked Ellicott City for the second time in 22 months also deluged Lenore Court. By then, the neighbors knew what to expect, and began fleeing their homes and moving their cars uphill as the waters rose.
Not long after, the neighbors gathered in Vaughn’s living room for a meeting with county officials, asking to sell the homes. They met little resistance. Just a few months later, the county won a FEMA grant covering 75% of the fair market value of the homes on Lenore Court, plus the demolition costs, said David Fidler, a spokesman for the county public works department. FEMA paid $958,500 of a nearly $1.3 million expense, records show.
The county covered the rest. Councilman Julian Jones, whose district covers the west side of the county, said that wasn’t a difficult decision: “The residents all wanted it.”
It wasn’t the first time the county bought out flood-weary residents. It happened as early as the 1970s, Fidler said, including after Hurricane Agnes set high-water marks across the region in 1972. More recently, the county bought out some homeowners around Herring Run in Towson who have faced recurrent flooding and overloaded stormwater culverts, though others still are seeking relief.
“In a lot of cases it’s the only thing you can do,” Fidler said.
But Lenore Court was especially vulnerable. The stream that made its backyards so peaceful most of the time also happens to be one of the most flood-prone in the region, and by extension, possibly in the country, according to Andrew Miller, who has studied the waterway for more than a decade as a professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
As with many other urban streams, the drainage area for the network of brooks known as Dead Run is highly developed, covered mostly by acres of buildings, asphalt and concrete. Much if not most of that landscape predates practices known as stormwater management that seek to slow down runoff, redirect it and absorb it into the land, Miller said.
The watershed for one branch of the Dead Run, which converges with another directly behind Lenore Court, is two-thirds covered by pavement, while other sections are close to half-covered by impervious surfaces. Miller called the Dead Run “a canary in a coal mine” for urban streams facing increased development and the threat of stronger storms.
He said deluges on par with the one that hit Lenore Court in 2004 flow down the Dead Run every decade or two, according to a stream gauge in Leakin Park, near where the stream converges with the Gwynns Falls, which empties into the Patapsco River’s Middle Branch between Wheelabrator’s Baltimore trash incinerator and Interstate 95. But the tables hydrologists use to compare floods suggest that 5 inches of rain should fall in one spot within two hours only once every 300 or 400 years.
Research has shown that in the Northeast, the most extreme storms carried 27% more moisture in recent years than at the turn of the 20th century. And other studies suggest extreme precipitation will become more frequent as temperatures rise across the planet, because warmer air is capable of holding more moisture.
As local researchers seek to better understand the frequency and severity of flooding in Dead Run, Miller said he and colleagues haven’t proved that rainfall intensity has surged in that watershed. But because pavement cover hasn’t changed much in decades, there are only so many variables to explain why the floods are happening.
“The frequency is much higher than we would have guessed,” he said. “I look at big floods as being sort of normal around here.”
Either way, there is no simple solution, Miller said. It would mean tearing out the oceans of asphalt around Security Square mall and the office parks along Lord Baltimore Drive or that carry motorists along Interstates 695 and 70, which meet at a massive interchange less than a mile from Lenore Court.
Preservation Maryland’s Redding said decisions to adapt to flooding and sea-level rise can be difficult and confusing. Demolition might seem simplest in places like Lenore Court, but in Ellicott City, the option is fraught.
As many as 10 historic buildings were set to be razed under a plan Howard County adopted in the wake of the 2018 flood, but amid concern over the future of the old mill town, voters ousted former County Executive Allan Kittleman. Calvin Ball, Kittleman’s successor, now plans to tear down only four structures, along with plans to direct stormwater into new retention ponds and build a massive tunnel under Main Street.
“It really does come down to what works best in that particular situation, and what you’re trying to save,” Redding said.
As more federal money becomes available for prevention of losses to flooding and other disasters, state officials say they are open to ideas of how to spend it. The Maryland Emergency Management Agency, consulting with other state and local agencies, weighs factors including cost-effectiveness and community support when ranking projects, said JaLeesa Tate, the state hazard mitigation officer at MEMA. The goal, she said, is to reduce threats to Marylanders and their property.
Sometimes, that risk is just too much to bear. For Vaughn, the sound of rain was a trigger that sent her anxiously looking out the back windows at the coursing stream.
But she moved away from Lenore Court in November 2018, to a bigger house on a corner that’s a six-minute drive from Lenore Court. Now, she said, she feels relief.