Flood damage on historic Main Street in Ellicott City seen from above.
The destruction that occurred from the flood in Ellicott City — for the second time within two years — is dark deja vu for the merchants, workers, business owners and residents of that charming town and for the Baltimore region.
Ellicott City is a star in the constellation of attractive Maryland villages with inviting Main Streets. But few towns have been as damaged, and repeatedly so, by rushing waters. It is natural today to question whether Ellicott City, despite its hard-earned reputation for resilience, can make another comeback.
It is also natural for humans to wonder if something could have been done to protect Ellicott City from the second blow that arrived on Memorial Day weekend.
It’s what we do in the wake of plane crashes, train accidents, building fires, school shootings, oil spills, lapses in the criminal justice system and financial meltdowns. We ask: What went wrong? How do we keep it from happening again?
The examples I cite involve human error or weakness in some form, and we usually do a pretty good job of identifying and addressing causes or culprits in those cases.
But when it comes to torrential rain and rising rivers, we tend to see impenetrable mystery. We resort to primal feelings of awe and helplessness. We feel shock that Mother Nature could be so cruel. We see floods as acts of God.
I say “we” in the historic sense, the way we traditionally thought about natural disasters before scientists started warning us about global warming and climate change.
It has been nearly three decades now since Bill McKibben’s “The End of Nature” proffered the idea that, because of global warming, the wild Earth no longer existed as a force independent of human beings.
And this year marks a decade since the publication of a landmark paper, “Stationarity Is Dead,” by a group of hydrologists who concluded that we can no longer use the frequency and intensity of past floods to predict future ones.
Maryland’s top climate scientist, Don Boesch, until last year president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Cambridge, says the old models for predicting 100-year or 1,000-year floods are no longer useful.
As development has increased on the hilly terrain overlooking the 244-year-old river town, the amount of rain rushing off rooftops and parking lots also has grown — making Ellicott City's low-lying Main Street more vulnerable to intense rains that meteorologists say are hitting the region more frequently.
“The odds,” he says, “of floods such as the ones we saw in Ellicott City this week and in 2016 are greater than those experienced in previous centuries because of two factors — changes within the watershed and changes in our climate.”
By now, more humans than ever accept a science-based conclusion — that what the 7.6 billion of us do on Earth has altered the planet’s atmosphere — but that doesn’t mean there is consensus. In fact, in the United States, climate change is, like everything else, a highly partisan issue.
The most recent Gallup survey on climate found that nearly 70 percent of Republicans believe global warming is exaggerated while, by contrast, 90 percent of Democrats worry about it “a great deal” or “a fair amount.”
Only 18 percent of Republicans said global warming will pose a serious threat during their lifetimes; nearly 70 percent of Democrats are convinced that it will.
So, on an unaffiliated, purely human level, we might wonder if there’s anything that can be done to protect Ellicott City from flooding. But solving that huge and expensive challenge — or any weather-related challenge in any part of the country — seems problematic when there’s still no consensus on root causes. It means, at the very least, that we often don’t act until it’s too late.
And while there’s a case to be made that, in Maryland, Republicans are more moderate and amenable when it comes to protecting the environment, it was mostly politicians of that party who notably fought against a couple of significant initiatives toward that end. They fought “smart growth” to steer new residential and commercial development to areas already primed for it, and they ridiculed as a “rain tax” a law that allowed local jurisdictions to assess fees for stormwater remediation projects.
I am not saying Republicans are to blame for the flood in Ellicott City. But the story needs context, locally and globally.
A perfect storm of factors likely led to the disaster on Main Street this time and last — climate change and extreme weather and, locally, the runoff of stormwater from impervious surfaces in the relatively new residential development on the hilly terrain above Ellicott City.
You don’t have to be an atmospheric scientist, hydrologist or ecologist to see the human hand in all of this — the amount of land we decide to develop, our decisions to live in newly developed suburban areas instead of old urban ones that could be reused, the amount of food and fuel we consume, the green initiatives we dismiss because they seem too burdensome or expensive.