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‘Chief Resilience Officer’ could help Maryland avoid another thousand-year flood | GUEST COMMENTARY

Water rushes through Main Street in Old Ellicott City following a torrential rainstorm.
Water rushes through Main Street in Old Ellicott City following a torrential rainstorm. (Libby Solomon, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

I live in Ellicott City, a site of two horrific thousand-year floods in the last few years alone. With climate change, floods will only become more frequent, and having just staved off the pandemic, our business owners fear yet another wave of destruction. In 2010, small businesses generated half of our country’s Gross Domestic Product, and yet, in one year of COVID, 200,000 such businesses were shuttered for good.

Many will never return, a situation seen also in my town’s terrible floods. It is only with our Ellicott City Safe and Sound Plan that a third flood may be staved off. But a poorer community than ours, one that’s also home to lives painstakingly built up over generations, could not fund its own reconstruction, as we can. Remember New Orleans’ Lower Ninth?

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Flood resilience is one of the most important issues America will have to address if we are to see safe communities and strong businesses. Maryland must establish the Office of the Chief Resilience Officer, or CRO, such as was proposed in state Senate Bill 721 and S.B. 62, introduced by Senator Katie Fry Hester in 2020 and 2021. This individual would serve as the point person to coordinate state and local agencies to build resilience against risks related to climate change, leverage all available funding streams and technical resources, and engage stakeholders in industries that are threatened by climate change.

Currently, these goals are dispersed between departments — Housing and Community Development, Environment, Agriculture, Emergency Management, and so on. The creation of a specific office for resilience would also prove invaluable in supporting vulnerable or underprivileged communities as we face floods or heat waves (after flooding, heat waves have been among our greatest crises of resilience thus far). Above all, the CRO would be a trusted adviser. They would set specific goals and issue fiscal reports. They would improve the safety of all Marylanders. They would be accountable.

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Your home may be next. The shops you frequent may no longer be there. Your community may become a byword for disaster. Don’t let this happen. Stephen Jordan, Chief Executive Officer of the Institute for Sustainable Development, makes a firm case for adding a CRO: “You need someone to actively manage resilience and be responsible for it,” he explains. “Environment, business, emergency response, embed resilience into all of these functions, but you need an advocate, coordinator, planner, someone accountable.” As an example of what a CRO could prevent, he cites the startling statistic from New Jersey that “a couple of breakwaters for Hurricane Sandy would have saved $19 billion.” Who could have seen the hurricane coming and planned accordingly? The CRO. Note that breakwaters’ costs are measured merely in the millions, and fiscal responsibility should encourage saving a small fortune for a larger one; overall, climate change mitigation saves $6 per dollar spent.

Floods threaten to annihilate numerous local communities, uprooting and scattering their people. We should enable people to stay where they belong, without living under the shadow of never-ending danger. Managed migration is not a bad thing, but local governments cannot suggest such a strategy without facing strong local concern. Only the CRO could provide incentives to any local relocation, providing a cushion of stability.

Anthony Duan (duan.anthony@gmail.com) is an intern in the Office of State Senator Katie Fry Hester, a Democrat representing Caroll and Howard Counties. His focus is resilience policy.

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