Any rebuilding of historic old Ellicott City requires profoundly rethinking the use of the former mill town, according to one expert.
Hye Yeong Kwon, executive director of the Center for Watershed Protection, warned that the area is in a flood plain and would be inundated by water again. While there have been efforts to mitigate the impact of flooding, she said, ultimately there’s only so much that can be done because of its location in the Tiber-Hudson watershed.
“It’s in the flood plain … if we’re going to invest in rebuilding Ellicott City it needs to be in a drastically different way,” Kwon said.
More than 8 inches of rain fell in a matter of hours on Sunday and sent a cascade of muddy water rushing down Main Street, destroying cars, businesses and killing one man. Howard County Police identified a body found in the Patapsco River on Tuesday as that of 39-year-old Eddison Hermond, an Army National Guard member, who went missing while helping rescue a pet from flood waters.
The latest flood comes less than two years after a similar storm dumped nearly 6 inches of rain in a two-hour period on the historic downtown, causing a flash flood that killed two people, destroyed businesses, swept away cars, and caused an estimated $22.4 million in damage.
The aftermath of Sunday’s storm is likely to kindle the same discussions held in other parts of the country where natural disasters routinely strike: How much it will cost to permanently protect the damaged community? Who pays? Is it worth it?
Overhauling the historic community, a thriving retail center in an affluent Baltimore suburb, to limit storm damage may mean eliminating some buildings, using the area for park land instead, and investing in other natural storm water management tools, Kwon said.
The Center for Watershed Protection, which was previously based in old Ellicott City, was approached about building rain gardens downtown after the 2016 flood. Kwon said her organization declined to participate because the gardens would have been an ineffective gesture when more meaningful investment is needed to ensure safety.
“I’d love to help people rebuild Ellicott City, but not if it’s going to be the same,” she said.
Howard County is in the process of building and designing several projects aimed at containing flood water in higher portions of the watershed during storms. Those projects include a culvert expansion at 8600 Main St.; the design of a Hudson Branch Stormwater Retention Facility at the Route 29 and Route 40 interchange; and improvements to storm drains along Old Columbia Pike, Emory and Church streets, according to the county.
Little more than a week ago County Executive Allan H. Kittleman announced a partnership between the county, the U.S. Department of Homeland Services and the National Weather Service to bolster flood warning systems in Ellicott City. The first part of that effort involves installing 48 stream gauges at 16 locations in the roughly four-mile watershed in June.
Organizations such as Preservation Maryland already have launched recovery funds to raise money for rebuilding. After the 2016 flood, nonprofits, Howard County, the state of Maryland and the federal government contributed millions of dollars via funding, grants and loans to help rebuild the area. There’s currently not an estimate for the damage from Sunday’s flood, and officials have just started the process of identifying and securing money for the latest recovery effort.
Kittleman reportedly said damage from the most recent storm is worse then two years ago.
Last summer, as businesses were completing their recovery, most merchants said they were confident Ellicott City would bounce back. But some, like Joan Eve Shea-Cohen, owner of Joan Eve’s Antiques and Collectibles, said if they were flooded again it would be the end for those enterprises.
“If it happens again and I live through it, I’ll retire,” Shea-Cohen said last July.
Some residents and officials blame heavy development in the area for the increased flooding in the historic retail section of Ellicott City. Building has exacerbated problems, Kwon said, but ultimately it’s where the water from the Tiber, Hudson and Patapsco rivers is supposed to go during torrential downpours.
As state and local officials again ramp up efforts to salvage the historic area that dates back to the 1770s, she said, it’s time to consider “radical” solutions to rebuilding. Those radical solutions include considering if continuing as a retail and residential area is sensible. Broaching the topic of not using the area for its current purposes with residents and businesses will require courage from elected officials, she said.
“They need to be told by leaders it’s not OK to rebuild again,” she said.