On Sunday, May 27, thunderstorms pounded the Baltimore region for hours. The storm morphed Old Ellicott City into a deadly flood zone. Here’s how it happened. (Baltimore Sun video)
After Ellicott City suffered the deadly and devastating flash flood of 2016, the Howard County government commissioned an engineering study to determine how much it would cost to make the historic mill town safer.
The answer: A lot.
The engineering firm, McCormick Taylor, determined that about $35 million in immediate improvements were needed, including $13 million to build three large ponds to catch rainwater before it floods Main Street and sweeps away people, cars and businesses.
But it didn’t stop there. For the long term, the firm recommended a couple of options: drilling two tunnels, called bores, through the town’s hills at a cost of more than $60 million to redirect water away from downtown, or building 18 stormwater management projects that would cost about $85 million.
It was an expensive plan. The proposed capital budget for 2019, which covers building projects throughout the county, totals $165 million, $97 million of it already committed to paying off bonds for other projects.
It was an ambitious plan. If approved, it could take decades to implement.
County officials went to work cleaning debris out of streams and shoring up retaining walls. County Executive Allan Kittleman announced $18 million in long-term work upstream on the Patapsco River to slow the flow of water and, officials hoped, reduce the likelihood of another flash flood.
But most of the projects were still in the planning stage when tragedy struck again last Sunday. For the second time in less than two years, a rapid river of stormwater runoff ripped through Main Street, damaging dozens of businesses and cars and killing Sgt. Eddison “Eddie” A. Hermond, a National Guardsman who tried to rescue a local shop owner.
Now residents, business owners and others are asking: Why didn’t local government do more, earlier to prevent another flood? After struggling to recover from the 2016 deluge, should they try again now to rebuild? And if so, what needs to be done to guard against more catastrophe?
Kara Brook Brown owns two buildings on Main Street. She says she felt pressured by the county to rebuild her stores, but didn’t see the same urgency from officials to improve stormwater infrastructure.
“We had an emergency and it needed to be treated as such,” she said. “I’m not an engineer. I can’t tell you how much they needed to spend. But they needed to do more than they did. They didn’t do much. They fixed a wall. That’s it.”
Kittleman says county officials have worked hard and fast to fix issues in Ellicott City, but most projects take years to complete. He says the town is a victim of unusually bad luck in getting hit with two rare, intense thunderstorms in so short a time.
“When you deal with these issues, you can’t build them in a month,” the first-term Republican said. “You can’t build them in a year. It takes 10 years or more to get some of these things done. … Who would have ever imagined we’d have a worse flood two years later?”
As development on the hilly terrain overlooking the 246-year-old river town has increased, the volume of rain rushing off rooftops and parking lots has also grown. That makes Ellicott City’s low-lying Main Street more vulnerable to intense rains that meteorologists say are hitting the region more frequently.
But many here say they don’t want to give up on a town so rich with history and charm, a walkable streetscape of shops, bars and some of the region’s best restaurants.
Dave Mullen has lived in Ellicott City for nearly all of his 48 years. After the flooding Sunday, he held a one-man protest at the top of a hill near new development calling on the county to address stormwater.
His hand-written sign read: “No New Development. U R Ruining History.”
“I’m here to try to do something to save the town I love, the town I grew up in,” he said. “I don’t want to see a ghost town. All we can do is stop building, and find a way to redirect the water so the town doesn’t get ruined. It’s been here longer than any of this and it deserves to stay.”
When McCormick Taylor proposed its stormwater projects, the engineers said the most they could promise was to reduce the volume of runoff from heavy rain to the levels of centuries ago, not to zero. The town could still flood from extreme rain or a hurricane.
Now the town is wrestling with existential questions: Should it rebuild? Is it worth the taxpayer money? And, if so, how can things be done differently?
Among the considerations: Should massive stormwater projects be completed — such as the tunnels through the hills — before the town reopens? Should the most vulnerable areas be condemned, and the businesses there be moved higher up the hill? Should some buildings adopt the Venice model, in which they sit on wooden piles?
Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs, says officials owe Ellicott City some answers.
“That’s what government is there to do: Solve big problems that are not going to be solved by the market,” he said. “The market has been a big contributor to this problem.”
After the fatal flood of 2016, 96 percent of businesses reopened. This year, fewer are expected to try.
“Everybody thought the flood of 2016 was a freak storm and we all thought we had time,” she said. Now, she says, it no longer appears to be a freak storm, but a combination of changing weather patterns and overdevelopment.
“We can’t fathom rebuilding,” she said. “I cannot get up and ask people to throw more good money after bad.”
Howard County officials are looking west toward Frederick, which built a $60 million stormwater-control system after the flood of 1976, and the Carroll County town of Sykesville, which was rebuilt on higher ground after it was destroyed by flooding in 1868.
“It’s too early to say how much should we reinvest and in what,” said Howard County Councilman Jon Weinstein, a Democrat who represents the area. “It’s going to be a different conversation than the last time. If some buildings need to come down and move, why not move uphill?”
Weinstein pushes back against criticism that county government hasn’t addressed stormwater runoff and overdevelopment.
He notes that water levels in the Patapsco River rose by about 13 feet during the flood. Even large-scale stormwater projects wouldn’t have had much effect against that type of rain, he said.
“If it rains eight inches again it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “We’ll shave a foot or two off the full damage.”
But Weinstein is hopeful there could be more federal and state help after this flood. He said he and Kittleman both got calls from the White House offering support. If the Trump administration is willing to fund large infrastructure projects in Ellicott City, he said, the county can be more ambitious.
“If the federal government came to us tomorrow, that would be a different conversation,” he said.
Former Howard County planning director Joseph W. Rutter owns several properties on Main Street. He plans to reopen, but he wants the county to make some inexpensive changes.
Rutter thinks parking should be prohibited on Main Street because floods turn the cars into battering rams, smashing into properties and causing damage. He thinks large trash bins should be chained down for the same reason. And he wants guard rails placed around parking lots to keep cars from clogging culverts and contributing to flooding.
Rutter likened Ellicott City to a patient with heart issues who keeps talking about getting a stent instead of just getting the stent.
“From my public sector role, I understand engaging the community and having meetings,” he said. “But from my perspective, I’ve attended many, many meetings.”
“I don’t want to suggest the county should spend $85 million,” he said. “But the velocity [of the water] can be mitigated.”
Tim Lattimer, a former acting director of the Office of Global Change in the federal Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science, says he understands why many might balk at a price tag in the tens of millions for projects that likely wouldn’t stop the most severe floods. He thinks it could be throwing good money after bad.
“I recognize Ellicott City means a lot to the community,” said Lattimer, who lives in Howard County. “But we human beings have irretrievably altered the natural world both in terms of climate change and the upstream development. Main Street is now a flood control channel. You have to ask yourself: Maybe we need to rethink what we’re doing with old town Ellicott City.”
Lattimer, a candidate for the county’s Democratic Central Committee, faults local leaders for what he says are steps in the wrong direction. He points out that Kittleman tried to repeal the county’s stormwater management fee, derided by opponents as the “rain tax,” which provides funding for projects that limit runoff. And he says the County Council, which is controlled by Democrats, failed to enact Weinstein’s legislation for a moratorium on building near the Tiber and Hudson streams, which empty into Ellicott City during intense rain.
“Mother Nature is saying, ‘Can you hear me now?’ ”
He doubts even $100 million in improvements can accommodate intense rains the changing climate is producing.
“Sometimes we think we can engineer our way out of problems,” he said. “I can’t imagine a culvert big enough to handle the flows we saw Sunday.”
He thinks the county needs to start integrating climate change into planning documents. He’d prefer the county use the phrase #ECSmart instead of #ECStrong.
“Very few cities have integrated climate change into their planning,” he said. “I worry there’s this false bravado and machismo that we’re going to bounce back. We reopened faster than we expected, and now look what’s happened.
“There needs to be a reality check. To me it’s hubris to say, ‘We’re going to do what we’ve done before and rebuild and take our chances with Mother Nature.’ ”
County officials have agreed to fund vast "dry ponds" along streams to hold water during major storms, and to upgrade and expand the system of pipes and culverts that carry parts of Hudson Branch along Frederick Road toward the historic district.
They announced plans for a high-tech flood monitoring system in the Ellicott City watershed less than a week before Sunday’s flood.
Some here wonder why such efforts weren’t completed before businesses reopened.
Hye Yeong Kwon, executive director of the Ellicott City-based Center for Watershed Protection, says she questioned the rebuilding efforts after the 2016 flood. Now she’s left wondering again why anyone is thinking about moving back to Main Street — at least, not without a major redesign.
“I wouldn’t rebuild down there,” she said. “Not the way that they have.”
Given emotional and economic ties to the old mill town, she doesn’t expect anyone to take that advice. When rebuilding happens this time, she says, residents need to pay more attention to the impacts of climate change and upstream development.
“It has to be drastic,” Kwon said. “It can be nothing like what was done last time.”
Kwon endorsed some of the more extensive stormwater channeling systems suggested by McCormick Taylor in the engineering report after the 2016 flood. And beyond that, she suggested the town consider “Venice-style” decking that elevates the street and doorways, and replacing the lowest, most flood-prone buildings with park space.
“We should think about that very differently so we don’t continue to put people in harm’s way,” she said.
She said re-creating the Ellicott City of old is not an option. Even the most extensive stormwater systems wouldn’t eliminate all flooding.
“It’s in the flood plain,” she said. “That’s where the water’s meant to go.”
The recent rains were extraordinary, analysts say, but flooding is to be expected in Ellicott City. Its steep slopes and fast-moving waters are what made it an ideal mill town, where the Ellicott brothers operated flour mills in the 1700s.
“That’s why it was built there,” said Andy Miller, a professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “It’s always going to be at risk for floods.”
The problem is that the streams no longer power the town’s economy — they flow beneath it. During the flash flood, the Tiber and Hudson tributaries — one of which flows under Main Street before converging with the other — overflowed, rushing onto the road and putting the downtown shopping, dining and residential district in the path of a raging river. Runoff swelled over stream banks as far as a mile away and came rushing toward the Patapsco.
“Nobody anticipated it would be a place with boutique shops and restaurants when they built a mill there,” Miller said.
Engineer Chris Brooks led the McCormick Taylor study. Even if Ellicott City spends millions to better trap and divert floodwaters, he said, there’s no guarantee those shops and restaurants won’t be washed away again. The study suggests even the most expensive and aggressive proposals would reduce peak flood levels by only 15 to 30 percent.
“Lower Main Street is fairly unique — it has a lot of things working against keeping it high and dry,” Brooks said. “When there’s heavy rainfall, it is always going to funnel through that part of town. There’s always going to be some risk of flooding.”
Miller said he doesn’t blame Howard County or state officials for not moving faster on stormwater projects proposed after the 2016 flood.
“It’s hard enough to come up with $10 million,” he said. “People who think they should have snapped their fingers and made it happen don’t really understand.”
Howard County Councilman Greg Fox, the only Republican on the body, toured the damage Monday. He’s felt optimistic about the town’s ability to rebound again. Some walls and buildings put up after the 2016 flood were still in place.
“My initial inclination is, why wouldn’t we?” he said. “A lot of the improvements that took place on the structure side did hold.”
He was out of town during the 2016 flooding, he says, so he didn’t get to see its damage until almost a week later. But only a day after Sunday’s flood, Main Street looked to be in better shape this time around, and far sooner.