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Environment

Desperate to turn back rising floods, Turner Station is asking for help to put climate justice into action

When rain starts pouring in Turner Station, the historically Black community in southeastern Baltimore County surrounded by creeks, 92-year-old Margaret Risher watches out her front door, praying a bus doesn’t splash another wake of floodwaters into her brick rowhouse.

Around the corner, Michael Hancock braves the storms to move his elderly neighbors’ cars to higher ground, one by one. There’s one fewer since a flood totaled Risher’s Ford a few years back.

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And across the street, the staff at the local mini mart on Sollers Point Road have sandbags at the ready to barricade the glass doors and close up shop. Inside, all the shelves have been raised a few inches off the ground for when the water inevitably makes its way in.

It’s a scenario that plays out at least a few times a year, including in May and again in early August. Longtime residents say it’s happening more frequently now. And after decades of conversations about the problem, Turner Station is ready to put talk about environmental justice into action.

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Margaret Risher, 92, who has lived in Turner Station her entire life, gestures with her cane to indicate the level that water has reached during flooding at her Sollers Point Road home.

A group of residents is calling on Baltimore County to invest in flood relief, with the results of a recently completed Army Corps of Engineers study in hand. The Corps found that even on sunny days, water sits in storm drains beneath the low-lying peninsula, and that models suggest the intense floods that are coming more often would become devastating without intervention.

“Global warming has really stepped up the problem and is smacking people in the face,” said Olivia Lomax, a resident and activist with Turner Station Conservation Teams, a community group. “We’ve got to get stuff done. We can’t keep putting it off.”

As the residents push for change, their community exemplifies the challenges of addressing the uneven impacts of climate change. Turner Station was established in the late 1800s as a community for Black workers at the former Sparrows Point steel mill. But while other flood-prone communities in Maryland have seen investments in drainage and shoreline protections, residents say theirs has been overlooked.

They worry flooding is only adding to a list of reasons why their children and grandchildren are choosing to settle elsewhere. What was once a community of 10,000 numbers less than 3,000 residents. If trends continue, they fear the last traces of what one longtime resident has affectionately dubbed “Black Mayberry” could disappear.

But there is no clear solution. Residents are hoping for a pumping system, perhaps, that could clear drains and slow the rise of floodwaters in their community, which mostly stands just 6.5 feet to 16 feet above the surrounding Bear Creek, a tributary of the Patapsco River. Other ideas include redirecting or improving filtration of runoff from higher areas nearby, or, in more aggressive scenarios, exploring flood walls or buying flood-weary residents out of their homes and moving them elsewhere.

At the MD Mini Mart in Turner Station, Ali Mohamed, son of owner Ali Mahjoub, gestures to show how high the flood water was inside the store after the parking lot got flooded.

Some residents are reluctant to blame environmental racism — systemic and often implicit policies and practices that target certain communities for undesirable land uses or lesser enforcement — altogether for their plight, and say they hope their community becomes an example of climate justice.

Though Turner Station is known as the home of Henrietta Lacks, a Black resident whose cancer cells were taken and used in decades of medical research without her consent, investments in the community include a $7 million Sollers Point Multipurpose Center. It opened in 2011, overlooking one of the most frequently flooded blocks.

“I like to think it’s not a race issue,” Hancock said. “But the proof is in the pudding. What are you doing to help the community?”

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The Army Corps launched its study after learning of the persistent flooding problems in Turner Station in 2019. Unlike a recent report the agency issued laying out a $134 million plan to prevent flood damage in Baltimore City, though, this one does not prescribe any possible solutions. Instead, it focuses on the causes of the flooding and the risks posed.

It found that water is creeping toward Turner Station from below. Key stormwater mains that carry the bulk of the community’s runoff never fully drain, said Jason Stick, a project manager in the Corps’ Baltimore District office.

“On a normal dry day, there’s water in them from Bear Creek that just backs up in there, which takes away carrying capacity for when it actually rains,” he said.

That is the result of a combination of things. For one, the community is so old, its stormwater infrastructure isn’t equipped to handle the amount of runoff that rain brings, and was never designed to.

In the Mid-Atlantic, one of the chief symptoms of the growing abundance of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere is more intense rainfall. Average annual precipitation has increased by about 5% over the past century, but precipitation from extreme rain and snowfall events has surged even faster, by more than 25% since 1958, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

And research shows Chesapeake Bay sea levels have been rising at close to 2 millimeters a year, amounting to about a foot over the past century. That trend is expected to accelerate.

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In parts of Turner Station, like area around Risher’s home on Sollers Point Road, that can often translate into water pooling a foot deep.

From left, Gloria Nelson, president of Turner Station Conservation Teams, with other longtime residents Olivia Lomax, Renwick Glenn, Larry Bannerman and Michael Hancock, on Oak Street, one of the streets subject to frequent flooding. Mr. Bannerman, while still fighting for Turner Station, has moved out of the neighborhood.

The Corps study laid out some possible ways to address the flooding, including backflow preventers that can keep creek waters from rising up in storm drains and pumps that can drain areas that sit too low to rely on gravity. It also modeled the potential benefit of coastal flood walls, which it suggested would need to be as high as 5 feet.

But it didn’t explore the feasibility or costs of any of those options, Stick said. That is now up to the community, and Baltimore County leaders.

Jennifer Aiosa, who formerly led the advocacy group Blue Water Baltimore and joined the county as its chief sustainability officer last year, said her office is pursuing solutions, and money. The county recently applied for a grant from a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation coastal resiliency fund to study the possibilities and alternatives, and is seeking state and federal money earmarked for climate change resiliency, she said.

At a July meeting with Turner Station residents to discuss the flooding problems, she cautioned that it’s unrealistic to expect a perfect solution.

“We don’t believe that we can stop all flooding,” Aiosa said. ”What our goal really needs to be is, how do we reduce the risks to residents, to property, to human health?”

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Flooding in Baltimore County's Turner Station after Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003.

But residents are counting on some steps to protect their community.

After all, longtime resident Larry Bannerman said, millions of dollars are being spent to reduce potential flood damage in Ellicott City, where intense storms caused two deadly floods within two years. And Smith Island, a Chesapeake Bay community that has long been shrinking in both population and acreage, has received millions of dollars in federal funding to stabilize its shorelines.

“I don’t want to say Turner Station has been overlooked,” said Bannerman, who noted that the county also is spending $275,000 to renovate the neighborhood’s Fleming Senior Center. “But we’ve been beating this drum for a really long time.”

“It’s time for Baltimore County to listen to these solutions presented by the Army Corps and find ways to fund them,” he said.

Aiosa said she expects it could take 18 months to two years to explore options and engage the community.

Residents worry time isn’t on their side, and some have decided they can’t wait any longer.

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Bannerman, who pushed for flooding relief as part of the Turner Station Conservation Teams for 11 years, decided last year it was time to move. He said he looked at more than 100 houses, each time using a smartphone app to measure its elevation. He’s still fighting for Turner Station, but takes comfort that his new home in Edgewood is 107 feet above sea level.


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