Nation & World

In Maryland city, a painful debate on preventing deadly floods in historic district

Flood-damaged Main Street on May 29, 2018. CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti
Flood-damaged Main Street on May 29, 2018. CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti
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ELLICOTT CITY, Md. — After a “1,000-year flood” sent water roaring down Ellicott City’s Main Street in 2016, officials promised to rebuild the town just as it was before. When deadly flooding came again this year, the conversation shifted.

The next catastrophic flood could happen anytime, officials, residents and business owners concluded. Something had to change.

But discussion about how to make the historic Howard County business district and neighborhood safer has been fraught with emotional disagreement, and the county’s proposed $50 million flood mitigation plan became a point of contention in this fall’s election for county executive.

Democrat Calvin Ball voiced concerns about the plan on the campaign trail, saying it was hastily rolled out and did not have enough community input.

After beating Republican incumbent Allan Kittleman in November, Ball is moving forward with parts of the plan, including the construction of three upstream floodwater retention facilities. But he is reevaluating Kittleman’s proposal to raze 10 especially vulnerable buildings in Ellicott City’s historic district.

Preservationists say removing the buildings would fundamentally change the historic nature of the mill town, which was founded in 1772 by three Quaker brothers and sits below steep hills at the convergence of four creeks that flow into the Patapsco River.

But Kittleman says creating open green space where the buildings stand is the best way to lessen the height and speed of the flowing water. He said the plan was the result of years of study and included input from residents and business owners.

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Ball, who took office earlier this month, said he is continuing conversations started by Kittleman’s administration about acquiring the buildings, some of which are damaged beyond repair, and is moving as quickly as possible to finalize the county’s plans.

“Every day does matter,” he said.

Kittleman lost to Ball by 6 percentage points but says his defeat was because of the blue wave that swept down-ballot races in Maryland’s suburban districts, not because of the flood mitigation issue.

People “were upset with the current leadership in Washington,” he said, noting that he had strong support in the legislative district that includes Ellicott City.

He proposed the five-year plan on Aug. 23 with then-council member Jon Weinstein , who was already a lame duck, having narrowly lost the June 26 Democratic primary to Liz Walsh, a progressive political newcomer. In the general election campaign, Walsh criticized the plan, while her Republican opponent supported it. Now she holds a seat on the council and would have a vote if Ball proposes new flood mitigation efforts that have not already been funded.

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In Ellicott City’s quaint historic heart, all but two of the buildings slated for demolition on lower Main Street have been closed since the flood on May 27. Water stains are still clearly visible on some of the buildings.

Most owners of the businesses that operated in those buildings say they see the Kittleman-Weinstein plan as the best in a series of bad options.

“You’ll never be able to convince me it’s safe to come back,” said Shelley Sharkey, who opened her gym, Miss Fit, in 2017.

The business had closed at 12 p.m. on the Sunday the storm hit in midafternoon. It blew out the walls of the gym and dumped six inches of rain on Main Street in less than three hours, something the National Weather Service says has about a 0.1 percent chance of happening in any given year.

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“I thank God every day we were closed,” said Sharkey, who said she still has nightmares about what would have happened had the storm arrived earlier.

Standing in the holiday pop-up shop she is running to raise money to relocate her gym, Sharkey said she has seen foot traffic in Ellicott City drop since the flood. She is worried about the area’s future if Ball’s administration does not act quickly.

“We are open and working,” she said, surveying the holiday wares set up on furniture donated from other businesses.

Ball created a program that distributed $10 vouchers that shoppers could use in the historic district in the days before Christmas.

“So many people want to see the businesses on Main Street thrive,” he said in a news release.

Just off Main Street, and on higher ground, restaurant owner Randy Marriner said business at Manor Hill Tavern is down about 40 percent since the most recent flood. The drop is particularly notable when it rains.

“We need to create a safe environment where people are not afraid,” said Marriner, who said he supported the Kittleman-Weinstein plan but thinks additional flood mitigation tactics are needed as well.

Marriner’s longtime employee, Eddison “Eddie” Hermond, a National Guard sergeant, was at a nearby Mexican restaurant when the storm hit. Hermond died trying to rescue a woman trapped by rapidly rising water across the street.

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Those who oppose the plan worry about its price - which they point out will take tax dollars away from other projects - the potential effect on the character of the town and how effective it would be in reducing danger.

The plan says that if a similarly ferocious storm happened after the buildings were razed and upstream projects completed, there could still be four to six feet of water at the bottom of Main Street - less than before, but still enough to cause damage.

“We didn’t feel that was a good trade or a fair investment,” said Nicholas Redding, executive director of Preservation Maryland.

Before the county moves ahead with demolition, Redding said, officials should consider building tunnels underneath Main Street and accelerating upstream projects as a way to avoid flooding in the future.

Weinstein, the former council member, said the tunnel option was considered by engineers and deemed practically impossible, in part because of the logistical challenges of drilling into granite hills.

He said preservationists have prioritized the aesthetic of the town without considering what will happen to residents if changes are not made quickly.

“This is a living town with deep history,” he said. “There are folks here who can’t afford to live elsewhere.”

No one in the historic district seems excited about the prospect of tearing down the buildings. But no one wants to consider what could happen if there is another flood and the buildings are still there.

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“I don’t know what the right answer is,” said Mark Hemmis, who owns the Phoenix Emporium, a bar and restaurant at the bottom of Main Street that has reopened but is in a building that would be demolished under the flood mitigation plan. “I don’t think anyone has the right answer, and we also can’t afford to wait.”

Hemmis, who bought the restaurant in 2001, sought refuge during the May 27 storm with customers and staff on the second floor of the building. At one point, he waded up to his chest trying to help an employee who was in deep water on the first floor. A few weeks ago, he got a tattoo on his neck in the shape of one of the high-water marks on the walls.

Hemmis said that as much as he wants an answer, he appreciates the thoughtfulness that Ball is bringing to his deliberations.

“Everybody is looking out for the best interests of the city,” he said. “I just wish there was a better consensus on how to make it happen.”

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