After The Water

When a flash flood ripped through Old Ellicott City in Maryland, residents thought it was a freak occurrence. Instead, it was a hint about the future. And adapting to that future has been painful.

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July 30, 2016

It was already dark when the rain started to fall on the ridges and hills above Old Ellicott City. Inside the bars and restaurants on Main Street, neighbors and friends were enjoying a Saturday night out.

It was hard to hear the rain over the music. It was hard to worry because it was just rain.

Then there was the unmistakable sound of breaking glass and screaming.

A torrent of water came down the narrow Main Street, channeled between sloping bedrock and three-story facades of shops and galleries. Drivers had no way to get out.

Frantic teenagers at Bean Hollow coffee shop called 911 crying.

The buildings on the south side of Main Street are built over a streambed, and as the water rose, the floor of the shop began to buckle.

Many people on Main Street had no clear escape routes.

In the coffee shop, a terrified customer finally found a second-floor staircase hidden in a closet.

At its highest, the water was powerful enough to send vehicles bobbing down the street like horrible buoys. People who had been enjoying dinner on the second floor of an Italian restaurant watched, helpless, as two people clung to a car careening downstream.

Both survived.

But when the water receded, police found the bodies of two other people who had been driving when the flood began. They had been swept more than 2 miles downstream.

The National Weather Service said the flood had been a “1,000-year event” caused by extreme rain.

To most, it felt like a freak accident, an act of God that would never happen again.

The town’s leaders vowed to rebuild as quickly as possible. It took months just to clear away the mud.

But there was a sense of unity: Volunteers turned out to help, supplies rolled in, and Maryland’s governor praised the town’s resilience.

People on Main Street poured their savings into repairing their businesses and homes. Some spent everything they had saved for retirement. By early 2018, Old Ellicott City was slowly reopening.

“There was a very short period of time that I could look back and think, ‘Wow, we did that. We persevered,’ ” recalls restaurant owner Angie Tersiguel.

“I don’t feel that way anymore.”

May 27, 2018

It’s Memorial Day weekend. It has been 22 months since the flood.

There is rain in the forecast.

Main Street
Tiber Branch
3:20 p.m.
A flash flood warning has been issued for Old Ellicott City.
Main Street
Tiber Branch
Hudson Branch Tributary
Lower Main Street
Main Street
Tiber Branch
Hudson Branch Tributary
Lower Main Street
Main Street
Tiber Branch
Hudson Branch Tributary
Lower Main Street
5:16 p.m.
Someone calls 911 and says a man has been swept away.
Main Street
Tiber Branch
Hudson Branch Tributary
Lower Main Street
Lower Main Street
7:15 p.m.
The rush of water subsides.

The flood swept away a National Guardsman who had been trying to help a woman out in the water.

Staff Sgt. Eddison Hermond was the third person to die in less than two years because of flooding on Main Street.

“There was such shock.”

The Rev. Anjel Scarborough led the local Episcopal church at the time. “There is such denial at the initial stages,” she recalls. "But then it was the mourning — the grieving of the can-do attitude.”

The people of Old Ellicott City faced a scary reality: Another flash flood was inevitable.

A deadly confluence

The town’s Main Street sits at the bottom of a geographic funnel.

Half a dozen creeks cascade down steep and rocky slopes, gathering runoff from nearby housing developments, many of which were constructed without adequate storm drainage.

The waterways converge and are forced into a narrow passage under shops, restaurants and bars on Main Street. Many of the buildings are connected, so there are few alleys or other escape routes.

When there’s extreme rainfall, there’s nowhere for the extra water to go. The river rises and accelerates, punching through everything in its path.

Ellicott City is one of many towns across the nation where flooding is increasingly common because of climate change.

This map shows federal flood damage claims from 2008 to 2018. Flood risk in many parts of the U.S. is on the rise, in part because climate change is driving more frequent and intense storms, higher seas and extreme rain.

And like Ellicott City, many places have experienced multiple floods in a short period of time.

Flood Insurance Claims Per 1,000 People, 2010-2018

Extreme rain in 2013 caused catastrophic flooding in Boulder County, Colo., including dangerous flash floods. Similar storms in 2011, 2014 and 2019 flooded much of Holt County, Mo.

Flood Insurance Claims Per 1,000 People, 2010-2018

Hurricanes dumped extreme rain on Houston in 2017 and New Bern, N.C., in 2018, causing widespread flooding and shutting down the cities for days.

Flood Insurance Claims Per 1,000 People, 2010-2018

The trend of extreme rain will continue in the coming decades. This map shows how much extreme rain is expected to increase as of 2070 to 2099.

Forecast: Change In Extreme Precipitation In Late 21st Century

How are towns adapting to the new normal of climate change?

Who do people call for help? How do they simultaneously cope with loss and prepare for the future?

Communities like Ellicott City are struggling to answer these questions.

If residents fail, their towns could die.

A radical plan

“For 246 years, the people of Ellicott City have thought they could make the river do what we wanted,” then-County Executive Allan Kittleman told residents at a public meeting about two months after the second flood.

“Frankly, now I’ve realized we can try all we can to impose ourselves on this river, but the water doesn’t listen.”

County leaders proposed a radical plan: Ten buildings on Main Street would be permanently removed to make room for floodwaters.

It was a tough sell.

“Yeah, so that plan was actually, like, really painful. Like incredibly painful,” says restaurant owner Angie Tersiguel.

“This is a town of really strong personalities. That’s one of the [things] that makes this town so successful. But when you combine all those people together, it’s like an amoeba — you get them behind one thing and then you want to make a sharp right turn [and] it’s not happening.”

Wiley Purkey, who was born and raised in Old Ellicott City, says the idea was “absolutely gut-wrenching.”

“How the county could be looking at tearing down [any of these buildings] is a tragic misunderstanding of the importance of that part of town.”

Purkey has spent most of his adult life painting images of his beloved Main Street.

“Even though I don’t live there anymore, I feel like I have as much of a right to say what happens as anyone,” he says. “It’s at the heart of everything I do. I don’t know why just an average person being born in some podunk, nowhere town in the middle of Maryland feels it so passionately. But I do.”

“Family and very dear friends will say, ‘What are you doing here? Why are you still here? Especially if you know what’s coming. What’s wrong with you?’ ” says Gayle Killen, whose house on Main Street was built in the 1800s and has flooded repeatedly.

“I tell them this place is worth sticking around and working for. If I do nothing else with my life, I will at least occupy a space and improve it.”

As weeks and months passed, however, many people on Main Street came to publicly support the plan to remove buildings.

“If you pretend that human lives are worth less than historic buildings, you’re a despicable person,” says Beth Woodruff, whose family sold their house on Main Street to the county for possible demolition. “I don’t have any bones about saying that. You’re absolutely despicable. Human life is the most important thing.”

Facebook exploded with comments from residents, business owners and sentimental visitors about Old Ellicott City. Individual messages like:

I think immediate serious upstream mitigation is a no-brainer that should start immediately.
[…]I ached when I imagined the gaping wound in the heart of my beloved town that the proposed demolition of the ten buildings on lower Main. St. will cause.
I am debating just how to respond to a comment so incredibly foolish as yours [...] I mean, are you a jerk or are you or do you just understand so little, you don’t know what you don’t know.
If you tear down the buildings, I’m moving.
That’s BS!!! Its not nature it’s HOWARD COUNTY GOVERNMENT approving development that hinders proper drainage.
Tearing down 10 buildings won’t solve anything.were disappointed with their backroom deals, no input from community.
If you are afraid to live and work in this historic district, nonone is forcing you to stay.
Over nearly 250 years, thousands of people fought long and hard to keep this town alive, it’s just a shame that a snap decision made in 40 days might kill it.

The question about what to do on Main Street was an emotional problem masquerading as an engineering problem.

The plan to demolish 10 buildings made sense to the engineers. But the community couldn’t seriously consider it. Residents were still too consumed with fear of the future and grief over what the town was losing.

“Rebuilding decisions are not rational,” says hydrologist Ben Zaitchik. “You need to come up with an answer that satisfies the engineering specs and also the human needs.”

Starting over

After months of arguing, Ellicott City’s leaders went back to the drawing board.

They asked the engineers to come in and talk to residents about all the flood-control options:

  • What would happen if fewer buildings were torn down?
  • What if they built a tunnel to divert water?
  • How much would it all cost?
  • And what if they did nothing at all?

During the 2016 flood, there was more than 8 feet of water on lower Main Street.

Depth Of 2016 Floodwaters (In Feet)

  • 0
  • 10
  • 20+

The original plan, calling for 10 buildings to be removed, would reduce the water level to about 5 feet if a similar flood happened again.

Estimated Depth Of Floodwaters (In Feet) In 2016-Like Storm

  • 0
  • 10
  • 20+

The engineers had also studied more complex and expensive options, for example, boring two tunnels through the bedrock beneath the town to divert water, which would allow them to tear down fewer buildings and reduce the water level even more in a future flash flood.

Estimated Depth Of Floodwaters (In Feet) In 2016-Like Storm

  • 0
  • 10
  • 20+

For weeks in the spring of 2018, county leaders asked for feedback on all the potential plans. There were open forums and informal meetups and an online comment site all asking one question: What do you want us to do?

All the while, Main Street was in limbo. The gutted remains of many buildings were still sitting vacant, and another flood could happen any day.

Some business owners tried to protect themselves from the threat of flooding as best they could. The owners of an antiques store at the bottom of the street ordered special flood-proof windows and doors from Europe.

But the time that passed was also a buffer. It made the trauma and tragedy of the second flood less raw, and that made it a little easier for many people to think about the future, even if that meant making hard decisions.

Bean Hollow coffee shop announced it would not reopen. A women’s gym moved into a building on higher ground. A furniture shop and an art glass studio moved to new locations farther away.

The town was changing, and that might be OK.

The final plan

On May 13, 2019, the county announced the final flood plan for Old Ellicott City. It will spend at least $113 million to tear down four buildings on lower Main Street and bore one tunnel.

The county has also started buying a handful of homes up the street to make room for the water.

The plan will take at least five years to finish.

Estimated Depth Of Floodwaters (In Feet) In 2016-Like Storm

  • 0
  • 10
  • 20+

Today, the mood on Main Street is mixed.

Beth Woodruff, who sold her home to the county, says, “I don’t know that I made a conscious choice that I wanted to leave.”

She sighs. "It’s not really a decision, right? It’s like if your brother needed bone marrow.”

Sally Tennant lost both her business and her apartment of 40 years to the flooding.

She’s sitting on a folding chair inside her ruined store. The river that runs below is still visible through a gaping hole in the floor. “Sometimes I just shake my head, like, ‘Really? Did this really happen here?’ 

She still feels conflicted about the future. “I’m glad they’re not tearing down 10 buildings at this point, from a visual standpoint. … So sometimes I feel a sense of optimism,” she says.

Then she remembers the rain and the runoff, and her optimism fades.

“The pessimistic side of me says, ‘Can they fix it?’ The odds of it flooding again are very, very high.”

Meanwhile, a few new stores have come to Main Street.

Celeste Gebler and Joe Iacia opened a vintage store in a building that flooded both times. Joe says he was won over by the friendly intimacy of Old Ellicott City. “Maybe this town does have a new life, a new beginning,” he says.

Celeste seems less sure.

“I mean, every day is an adventure no matter what you do,” she says. “I’m not gonna lie, I get nervous when it rains.”

This is what resilience looks like.

People might not be entirely happy, and a lot of people are still scared when it rains. But they’re also cautiously, maybe even irrationally optimistic because their town has agreed to do something.

As the Earth gets hotter and flooding gets more extreme, other towns across the U.S. and around the world will need to find a way to do the same.

The rain is inevitable. The flooding doesn’t need to be.