Preparing for the thousand-year storm

Sprawl has made Baltimore suburb Ellicott City more vulnerable
to climate change

On an unseasonably warm late-summer day, the narrow, mile-long
stretch of Main Street in Ellicott City, Maryland, was jam-packed.
It was the weekend of the Main Street Music Fest, a daylong event
for local and unsigned bands that’s been a town staple since
2012. Shoppers ducked in and out of the stores on the main drag,
which was clogged with traffic, and people with frosty cups of
locally brewed beer hung out in parking lots off of Main Street
that had been repurposed as stages. The mood was
jovial—celebratory, even.

And there was plenty to celebrate: The weekend marked the
festival’s return to Main Street for the first time since 2017.
Last year, Ellicott City was still reeling from the disastrous
downpour of May 27, 2018, when a severe rainstorm walloped the
town, leading to flash floods that ravaged roads and buildings and
killed one person. It was the second torrential, 1,000-year storm
to pummel the town in as many years. On July 30, 2016, heavy rain
soaked Ellicott City in a span of just a few hours, causing flash
floods that inundated Main Street, wiped out storefronts and
vehicles, and killed two people.

The three years since that first storm have been tumultuous ones
for this 247-year-old Howard County mill town, which is located
about 12 miles from downtown Baltimore and has long functioned as a
suburb of that metropolis. Plans to safeguard the area from future
floods have been pitched (and scrapped), with mixed reactions from
residents and business owners. Many Main Street merchants rebuilt
their stores after the 2016 storm, only to have their work washed
away barely two years later; some chose to leave rather than risk
having their life’s work destroyed during another catastrophic
event. And a new administration was elected in Howard County in
2018, which eventually led to an entirely new mitigation plan for
future storms.

All the while, the threat of another major storm has hung over
the town. According to the National
Climate Assessment
, “heavy rainfall events have increased”
in the Northeast—which the assessment defines as the area
spanning from Maryland to Maine—more than in any other region in
the country. The amount of rain that falls during these events
increased by 70 percent between 1958 and 2010. And in 2018, several
municipalities near Ellicott City recorded their wettest years
ever; Catonsville, a small town that begins where Ellicott City’s
Main Street ends, was
inundated with more than 84 inches of rain
last year. The
question isn’t if another storm of this level will happen, it’s
when.

Ellicott City isn’t the only town in the country that’s
dealing with the aftermath of historic, catastrophic flooding.
Earlier this year, several states across the Midwest and the
southern plains experienced
heretofore unseen levels of flooding
that devastated towns and
caused
billions of dollars in damages
. And
a 2018 report
notes that urban flooding, which is defined as
“an inability on the part of a community to manage runoff from
large rainfall events and to move the water off affected areas in a
timely and efficient manner,” has only gotten worse in the past
two decades. According to the report, around 3,600 of those events
have happened since 1993—or one every two or three days.

“As we see increasing frequency and intensity of storms, it is
our duty to take climate change seriously and take important steps
to mitigating our carbon footprint and building resiliency,”
Calvin Ball, the recently elected county executive, said in an
interview.

But resilient infrastructure may not be enough. The historic
center of Ellicott City was clobbered, in part, because of the
suburban developments that sprung up around the town
after 1960
. Farmland and forests were replaced with housing,
driveways, and big-box shopping centers with hundreds of parking
spaces, creating geographical conditions that exacerbate the
impacts of weather events like severe storms. That suburban sprawl
is, on a larger scale,
contributing to climate change
—and there are some who think
Ellicott City needs to do more to curb it.

Before the back-to-back floods, Ellicott City was mostly known
for its quaint main drag—literally, a Main Street—lined with
small brick and wood-frame buildings, many of which date back to
the 18th and 19th century. The town was founded in 1772 by three
brothers, who took advantage of the location’s proximity to the
Patapsco River to create a thriving milling industry. It later
became a hub for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, with a train
station (which
stands to this day
) built at the bottom of Main Street in
1831.

By the 20th century, both of those industries had ceased being
the main economic drivers for Ellicott City, replaced by tourism to
its historic buildings and charming town center. The structures
that once held taverns, lumber companies, and boarding houses were
repurposed as shops and restaurants: a used bookstore in an
18th-century building that was once a saloon, a record store in a
circa-1848 stone structure that was once a fraternal lodge, and
more. Before the first flood in 2016, more than 100 businesses that
lined Main Street generated some $200 million in annual revenue,
according to
a report
from the Jacob France Institute. Ball, the county
executive, says Ellicott City is the second-biggest economic driver
for Howard County as a whole.

But the flooding laid bare how vulnerable Ellicott City is to
natural disasters. The town is part of the Tiber-Hudson Watershed,
a natural drainage area that has four tributaries flowing through
its three-and-a-half-square-mile expanse, all of which eventually
empty into the Patapsco River. The land surrounding the streams
within the watershed has been built up over the years, with a mix
of modest midcentury ranchers and bigger suburban McMansions
occupying close to 95 percent of the available space. That land is
already prone to flooding thanks to its geological makeup (mostly
granite), but the uptick in development after 1980 has exacerbated
the effects of suburban sprawl.

And then there’s the geography of the town itself: “Ellicott
City is like the bottom of a funnel,” explains Mark DeLuca, the
deputy director of public works for Howard County. Main Street is
built into a steep hill, with the Patapsco River at the very
bottom. The watershed’s four tributaries all feed into that
waterway, and when heavy storms inundate those streams, there’s
nowhere for the runoff to go but downhill.

“Everything that’s in the town is within the 100-year
floodplain,” says DeLuca. “So by all of our standards, that
town shouldn’t be there.”

 The
Washington Post via Getty Im

Ellicott City has experienced its fair share of devastating
floods, including one in 1868 in which the Patapsco rose 20 feet,
all but obliterating much of the town. What made the flooding in
2016 and 2018 different is the fact that it wasn’t caused by the
Patapsco rising; it was caused by super-intense storms that camped
out over the town for short periods of time (about four hours in
2016 and six hours in 2018). Both of those events were later
classified as 1,000-year storms, meaning that, given the historical
weather patterns, there was a 0.1 percent chance the town would
experience rainfall that severe and devastating. Combine that with
the other land-use and environmental factors of the town, and you
have what DeLuca calls “essentially a perfect-storm
scenario.”

Dramatic videos and photos taken in the aftermath of both the
2016 and 2018 storms showed cars, trash, tree branches, and even

the iconic clock
that sat next to the B&O rail station
being swept down Main Street at an alarmingly fast rate. Water
surged into buildings, in some cases rising past the first floor of
low-slung structures. Once the floodwaters receded, much of Main
Street was destroyed.

“[They are] probably the most intense storms that I’ve seen
in this area, that we’ve ever experienced,” says DeLuca, an
18-year veteran of the Department of Public Works.

After the 2016 storm, the focus was largely on rebuilding, as
well as creating bulwarks against future floods, with then-County
Executive Allan Kittleman
announcing several projects
that were intended to help contain
stormwater in the upper part of the watershed. But much of the
story after 2016 was about the resilience of the people impacted by
the flooding. The hashtag #ECStrong popped up everywhere—on
T-shirts, mugs, wristbands, and even as the name of a 5K run to
benefit the town—and a year after the flood, nearly all of the
impacted businesses
had reopened
.

And then the 2018 storm happened.

“When the second flood hits, it’s a little tougher. You lose
a little bit of the chutzpah that people had [in 2016],” says
Mike Hinson, acting director of the Howard County Office of
Emergency Management. “A lot of people had blown through some of
their personal money to get back open and now they were struck
again. So things changed there a little bit.”

The county government also had to change its approach to flood
protection; clearly, a more comprehensive, long-term solution was
needed. In August 2018, Kittleman unveiled an ambitious $50 million
plan that called for razing 10 of the historic buildings on the
south side of Main Street and replacing them with an open space
that would mitigate the roadway’s funnel effect. Another seven
buildings in a different part of town were also eyed for
demolition, all in the name of putting flood-protection measures
into place throughout the town.

 The
Washington Post via Getty Im

“The most experienced forecasters are telling us that storms
capable of producing these devastating flash floods are becoming
more likely in the entire mid-Atlantic region,” Kittleman said at
a press conference announcing the plan. “Our need to adapt to
this likelihood, and our need to first and foremost protect life
safety, has changed the conversation. I wish we weren’t at this
point, but this is the change we need.”

But the possible demolition of such a large number of Ellicott
City’s buildings made Kittleman’s plan unpopular, with
residents, preservationists, and other county officials coming
together to oppose it. “We felt [Kittleman’s plan] was a
precedent, a dangerous precedent, not only for Ellicott City and
for the state, but a nationally concerning precedent,” says
Nicholas Redding, the executive director of Preservation Maryland,
a nonprofit that focuses on historic conservation issues across the
state. “We didn’t want this to become something that other
cities look to as an example of what to do after you have some type
of catastrophic flooding or disaster, because the knee-jerk
reaction should not be to demolish first and ask questions
later.”

Members of the public expressed their displeasure at the polls:
In November 2018, Kittleman was voted out of office, and former
County Councilmember Calvin Ball was voted in. “It became sort of
a referendum for Alan Kittleman in terms of his reelection,” says
Redding. “It hinged on this idea that they were going to spend
tens of millions of dollars in demolishing a community and didn’t
really have a plan for what would come next and didn’t really
know how that would impact the community. Not surprisingly, the
majority of folks in Howard County pushed back against that.”

When Ball took office one month after the election, one of his
first priorities was to pause the Kittleman plan and approach
Ellicott City’s flooding problem with fresh eyes. “I spent a
lot of time listening to folks throughout Howard County, and what I
heard was that they wanted a plan with more transparency,” Ball
says. “They wanted a plan that made safety a priority, a plan
that to the extent possible addressed the issues more.”

Those issues included historic preservation; keeping the
character of the town center as intact as possible was, for many, a
top priority. So Ball pushed officials within the county government
to approach the problem differently. “I think previously the
focus was, what can be done as quickly as possible?” Ball
explains. “My charge was, what can be done to look at a town
that’s almost 250 years [old] and prepared for the next 250
years? That’s going to be an investment. Instead of renting out a
mediocre solution, let’s buy a great solution.”

That solution,
unveiled in May, will still require removing several buildings at
the southern end of Main Street that sit over one of the streams
that flows into the Patapsco River. But the plan chosen by Ball has
elements that did not appear in Kittleman’s mitigation efforts,
chief among them the construction of a 1,600-foot-long tunnel that
will divert water away from the Hudson Branch, a tributary that
feeds into the Patapsco. This effort would also reduce the amount
of water left on Main Street in a 100-year storm to 1 foot,
compared to 4.5 feet under the Kittleman plan. A final price tag
for the plan has yet to be determined, but it could cost as much as
$140 million.

Among Ellicott City’s stakeholders, the attitude toward the
Ball administration’s new plan is cautious optimism. “We know
not every building can be saved. We’re realistic in that
sense,” says Redding. “I think that it’s [still] a heck of a
lot, but it’s certainly a better plan than what we were presented
with before.”

And Alicia Jones-McLeod, the executive director of the Ellicott
City Partnership, a group that works with shop owners in the town,
says many of the folks she works with are “looking forward to
what’s next.”

“The business owners here are not monolithic,” Jones-McLeod
says. “As far as what the plan is, that’s not nearly as
important as feeling like the county and the people believe in
Ellicott City, and that there’s work being done in order to make
sure that people that live and work here are safe. I think that
some of that work is being done and the business owners recognize
that.”

But as with any massive civil project, there are lingering
concerns. Liz Walsh, a county councilmember whose district includes
the historic town center, believes that more needs to be done to
curb the proliferation of development in the watershed above
Ellicott City, which is characterized by lackluster stormwater
management and the spread of suburban subdivisions. Building upon a

development moratorium
that was approved by the council after
the 2018 storm, Walsh has introduced
legislation
that would put stricter regulations on new
development in the watershed (while still allowing for
flood-mitigation projects to move forward), and encourage builders
to incorporate green infrastructure into their projects.

Maryland did not have dedicated regulations around stormwater
management until 1985, so many of the older developments
surrounding historic Ellicott City are lacking in things like
proper drainage systems. While the stereotypical suburban
developments that were built in the years since do abide by those
regulations, the very existence of this type of housing—often
created by clearing trees and other naturally absorbent elements,
and replacing them with hardscaping like driveways—has negatively
impacted the surrounding area. Meanwhile, developers are often
granted waivers that let them skirt Howard County’s existing
land-use regulations, which prohibit things like building too close
to steep hills or streams; Walsh’s legislation would make those
waivers harder to get.

“I can’t conceive of a universe where we would add to the
volume of potential water when we haven’t done anything down here
to mitigate what we’re already dealing with,” Walsh says.

 The
Washington Post via Getty Im

The idea of pulling back from development in the face of climate
change is not new. Three communities in the New York City borough
of Staten Island that were ravaged by 2012’s Superstorm Sandy
have
been largely demolished
as part of a “managed retreat”
effort to bring natural flood protections—marshes, porous land,
and the like—back to the coastline.

Walsh’s legislation doesn’t go quite that far; she says her
focus is “this pulling back from gray infrastructure and relying
on green infrastructure—putting the premium and the value on
green infrastructure.” But despite broad public support, it has
proven unpopular with developers and lobbyists, and even has
skeptics within the Howard County government.

“A lot of the development that occurs now is so highly
regulated in terms of stormwater,” DeLuca says. “I think that
the driver is really the storm more than anything else.” He
points to a
hydrology study
commissioned by the county after the 2016 storm
that found that if the area surrounding historic Ellicott City was
undeveloped, and experienced the same level of rainfall as it did
during that storm, it would have been inundated with as much as 80
percent of the stormwater that ultimately fell.

But Walsh doesn’t see her proposed regulations as merely a
tool to curtail development; she also believes they will help
protect Ellicott City from the unknown—that is, the certainty
that future storms are coming, and the uncertainty of how
destructive they will be. “We were using a 100-year storm, a
1,000-year storm for purposes of the legislation that’s pending
now,” Walsh says. “We’re sticking to a finite description of
X inches and X time. But we don’t know what the next one is going
to be, so we don’t know what we need to engineer.”

That uncertainty remains the biggest concern for many of the
people invested in the future of Ellicott City. The plan put forth
by the Ball administration is expected to be implemented in full by
2025, and the county executive is optimistic about what it will do
for this unique, historic community. “My goal is not only to help
save Ellicott City and preserve it for the next 250 years,” Ball
says, “but also to be a model for every other jurisdiction that
is facing these challenges of how to move forward in an effective,
unifying way.”

But there’s no telling if another storm will hit the area
before all of those flood-mitigation efforts are put into place.
The county’s office of emergency management has put new
procedures into place to help alert residents to potentially
dangerous weather events (including an alert system that rolled out
over the summer, and new signage directing people to higher
ground), but that will only go so far if another 1,000-year storm
hits. “Every time there’s a threat of rain or a big
thunderstorm, everybody kind of holds their breath about Ellicott
City,” says Redding. “We need to fix that.”

Amy Plitt is a
Maryland native who grew up in Ellicott City; now, she’s the
editor of Curbed NY, and lives
in Brooklyn.

Source: FS – All – Architecture 10
Preparing for the thousand-year storm