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Ellicott City will rebuild, but difficult decisions lie ahead

Sally Tennant’s business had just recovered from the 2016 flash flood in Ellicott City when she was hit hard by another storm. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

In the aftermath of Ellicott City’s second devastating, deadly flood in two years, many outsiders have pondered what one Facebook commenter summed up this way: “Time to stop rebuilding in a flood zone.”

In truth, however, there is no question that the downtown historic district will be rebuilt. The more than 200-year-old enclave is Howard County’s cultural heart, its highest-profile attraction and a big economic generator. But as the mud and debris get cleared, some locals acknowledge that it may be time to rethink some of the zone’s most flood-vulnerable spots.

“We might look at a future that has part of the town moving uphill,” said County Council member Jon Weinstein (D), whose district includes the devastated area.

Such ideas are not new. The suburban county located between Baltimore and Washington has been considering its flood-
control options since before a similar 2016 deluge in Ellicott City, which was all-too-fresh on people’s minds when last weekend’s storm struck.

This second blow, which many business owners say caused more damage than the flood that killed two people two years ago, has brought new urgency to an often controversial conversation: What is causing the latest floods, and what is the best way to deal with them?

“I’ll tell you, in all frankness, the discussions we had after 2016 will be different now in 2018,” Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman (R) said at a news conference Thursday. “This is a game-changer; 2016 was, too, but to have two of these in two years is a real game-changer, and we’ve got to figure out what’s the best way to move forward.”

‘Washed away real quick’: One man killed in devastating flood

A former mill town, Ellicott City began and prospered on the strength of water that flowed into the Patapsco River. In 1772, three Quaker brothers from Pennsylvania — Joseph, Andrew and John Ellicott — established a flour mill on its banks, and Ellicott’s Mills, as it was known then, was born.

The town sits below steep hills at the convergence of four creeks that flow into the Patapsco. The earliest and most destructive flood recorded there came in 1868, when the river rose five feet in 10 minutes and killed 43 people. Many floods have followed.

The recent deluges, however, were caused not by the rising river but by water rushing in from above. Last weekend’s storm turned Main Street into a river, washing away cars and everything else in its path. National Guard Sgt. Eddison Hermond was swept to his death trying to help a local pet store owner stranded by the rising waters.

Over the years, people have blamed development at higher elevations for the flooding, noting that rooftops and parking lots do not soak up water the way woods and fields do. Instead, it flows to land below.

Development is part of the problem, confirmed a flood analysis commissioned by the county after the 2016 storm. But the study said the bulk of the floodwaters would have come even had the watershed been undeveloped.

“The development is a factor, but it in and of itself is not the reason for the significant roadway flooding that we’ve seen,” said Christopher Brooks of the engineering and consulting firm McCormick Taylor, which produced the analysis.

Storm water retention facilities, such as ponds and underground vaults, along with improvements in the pipes and culverts that carry water past Main Street, would “make an appreciable difference in the severity of flooding” from a big storm, the study said.

Those measures would take years and cost tens of millions of dollars to put in place. In the meantime, the analysis recommended “flood proofing” and insuring buildings.

Flooded with gratitude: Sally Tennant reopens her shop before Christmas

Ahead of last weekend’s storm, the county was finalizing a master plan that incorporated the study’s findings and contemplated more than $80 million in infrastructure improvements. It also considered repurposing some buildings on lower Main Street by turning first floors into open pavilions, so that during floods, the water could flow right through. Some business and property owners did not appreciate the idea — and still don’t.

“You’ve got no right to take my property, or ruin it, and then say, ‘Oh, too bad, you can move your business up to the second floor,’ ” said Sally Tennant, who owns an eclectic shop called Discoveries and has been on Main Street for nearly four decades. She is among those who blame development upstream for the predicament.

“This is something that we’ve all known,” Tennant said. “Denial of a runoff problem is very silly at this point. It’s insulting to your intelligence.”

Tennant spent months rebuilding her business after the 2016 storm, only to be hit even worse last weekend. “The entire floor, subfloor, everything, is blown out,” she said. “The walls are gone. It’s awful.”

By last weekend’s storm, Tennant had decided she’d recovered just enough financially to start buying insurance, but hadn’t yet done so, she said. “It took every cent I had to come back.”

County officials acknowledge that development has contributed to the problem but point out that 60 to 70 percent of that building took place before 1980, before storm water management regulations were in place and long before current county officials took office.

“There really has not been much new development or even approved development in the last four years,” said Kittleman, who was elected in 2014. “We’re focusing on making sure what has been approved is being done by code and by law, making sure that the storm water regulations are abided by.”

Kittleman does not address the elephant in the room: climate change. Both the 2016 storm and this year’s dumped some six inches of rain on the county in two or three hours, something the National Weather Service says has about a 0.1 percent chance of happening there in any given year.

Asked at a news conference Tuesday whether climate change might have played a part, Kittleman responded: “I’m a county executive, I’m not a climatologist.”

Climatologists say global warming has increased the intensity of rainstorms in the United States and will continue to do so. There “is a high degree of certainty that the heaviest precipitation events will increase everywhere, and by large amounts,” said the federal government’s 2014 National Climate Assessment.

Weinstein, one of four Democrats on the five-person County Council, says “of course” climate change is a factor in Ellicott City’s flood problems.

“We’re seeing more severe storms,” he said. “That’s just a fact. That informs what we need to do next.”

911 calls from Ellicott City deluge: ‘Are we going to die?’

An economic impact study after the 2016 storm said Ellicott City’s Main Street corridor is home to about 140 businesses, employs nearly 1,000 people and contributes about $124 million a year in business activity.

Along Main Street, particularly toward the river, many business owners are wondering whether it is worth it to start over again. Others are certain they will.

Tim Kendzierski co-owns Ellicott Mills Brewing Co., which is far enough uphill that its damages were limited. He said county officials learned from mistakes in 2016 and have handled the aftermath of this year’s flood well.

“I’m absolutely dumbfounded and impressed by the response this time,” he said. “We’re already three or four weeks ahead of where we were last time.”

Kendzierski said he has faith in the county to work out long-term solutions. In the near-term, he said, businesses need to start generating revenue again.

“We know that we’re a tenacious bunch,” he said. “We know what we can do, because we’ve done it before.”

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