The outpouring of assistance for the residents and business owners in historic Ellicott City after this weekend’s devastating flood has been, if anything, even more intense than it was when almost the exact same thing happened two years ago. The people of this region have not hesitated to help those who are suffering emotionally, physically and economically, whether that’s through offering to volunteer or through donating food, money or other necessities. But as we move past the immediate response to tragedy, we all need to ask the same hard questions that Ellicott City’s downtown business and property owners are. They proved two years ago that Ellicott City can be rebuilt after such a massive disaster, but now that it’s happened again, we need to ask whether they should.
It could just be a coincidence that we’ve had two 1,000-year floods in Ellicott City in two years. But it would be a pretty big one. After the 2016 event, based on historical rainfall data in the region, hydrologists calculated that the chance of a recurrence of such an intense storm — more than 6 inches of rain in two hours — was 0.1 percent. Preliminary data from this weekend’s storm suggests it may actually have been worse than in 2016. We need to reckon both with the possibility that such extreme storms are going to become more routine and that existing measures to control water gushing toward the Patapsco are woefully inadequate.
To their credit, local officials treated the last flood not as a fluke but as a harbinger of things to come. County Executive Allan Kittleman’s administration commissioned an updated study of flood conditions in the watershed that included new modeling based on the 2016 event. They are in the process of developing a new master plan for the area, have made numerous small improvements to stream walls and other infractructure and have several major stormwater mitigation projects in various stages of design and implementation. It takes time to analyze conditions, design interventions and then construct them, but it turns out that time was something Ellicott City didn’t have.
The four major projects the Kittleman administration announced last summer track with the updated study’s assessment of what would provide the biggest bang for the buck — stormwater management ponds for the three major tributaries flowing through the Ellicott City watershed to the Patapsco and stormwater drain improvements along Frederick Road. Together, they are projected to cost about $18.5 million, and what’s sobering is that the flood modeling indicates they are only the beginning of what’s needed to protect Ellicott City. One of the goals of the updated study was to find ways to reduce the impact of a 100-year flood to that of a 10-year event, and achieving that will require extensive below-ground storage and conveyance improvements, including boring tunnels through bedrock below existing homes and businesses. As the study rather mildly puts it, “The implementation of such a system would have several challenges relative to the construction, permitting and funding of the tunnels,” with an emphasis, we would add, on “funding.” A March presentation, held as part of the master plan development process, pegs the total cost including the tunnel boring at $140 million.
Mr. Kittleman should certainly be thankful that the County Council voted 4-1 to reject his attempt to repeal Howard’s stormwater management fee (a.k.a. “rain tax”) in 2016, and we trust given the circumstances that he won’t make good on his promise at the time to “find out what the next council will do in 2018.” But even that funding won’t be nearly enough to do what the study recommends, nor is it clear that doing all those projects would solve the problem to everyone’s satisfaction. Both this flood and the one in 2016 were worse than a 100-year flood. The study estimated that if all recommended above- and below-ground stormwater management improvements are implemented, the peak flow rate for an event like that would still be above the 10-year flood level, and the number of buildings in the flood plain would only drop from 101 to 88.
The topography that made Ellicott City a good mill town unfortunately makes it extremely flood prone, and development in the region dating back decades, much of it old enough to predate stormwater management requirements, hasn’t helped. (Though the post-2016 flood report concluded that upstream development made much less difference than is commonly assumed.) Yet, the town is a historical and cultural gem, and the thought of abandoning it is one that many who have invested their lives there are unwilling to contemplate. We understand and appreciate that. But as we contemplate the next steps for Ellicott City, we need to do so with the assumption that the concept of a 1,000-year flood is a thing of the past. We now have some idea of what can be achieved in terms of flood mitigation and what it will cost, and it’s incumbent on the county’s leaders to present a realistic sense of what they think should be done, when it can be accomplished and where the money would come from. Massive flooding in Ellicott City not only can happen again but probably will, and everyone — taxpayers and property owners alike — need to make decisions accordingly.