Debris left behind in Ellicott City, Maryland, after catastrophic flooding on Sunday.
Debris left behind in Ellicott City, Maryland, after catastrophic flooding on Sunday. David McFadden/AP

In just a few hours on Sunday afternoon, the residents of Ellicott City, Maryland, became climate refugees. Here’s what that feels like.

If I have any takeaway from nearly drowning in the flash flood that swept through Ellicott City, Maryland, last Sunday, it’s that reality feels like it’s falling apart around you. Standing five doors down from the apartment I rent above my mother and sister’s kitchen goods store, I watched parked cars weightlessly slide down the street. Water that had been ankle high when I’d gone out to move my car up the street quickly rose to my thighs and, eventually, my waist. A police officer who had been blocking off traffic was standing next to me one second, yards away booking it up the street the next. I ran and banged on doors until I found an unlocked apartment building entrance, next to a cute shop that sells bathbombs and scented soaps. I slammed the door shut and watched transfixed as a wall of water bore down on the other side of two inches of wood and glass.

It only took about two hours for rain to turn Ellicott City from a quiet anytown Main Street into a raging torrent of mud, water, and garbage. I watched the flooding from the second floor of a stranger’s apartment, my hands trembling as sidewalks and store interiors were carried off by the waters. Some of the gutted buildings had been freshly renovated and re-opened as recently as a few months ago. A Buddha head statue from the neighborhood psychic bobbed down the impromptu river as this horrific multi-block bathtub filled and churned and finally drained. Later, after digging through debris and squeezing my way outside, I noticed a little frog hopping at my feet, just as confused by my presence as I was at his.

I’ve lived in Ellicott City, a small historic burg outside Baltimore, for a little over a year. I grew up in the neighboring suburb of Columbia and, after four years in New York City, the call to come back home became too strong to ignore. To know this town is to love it; it’s the kind of place where everyone turns out with their lawn chairs for weekly outdoor movies in the summer and neighbors pay you in cheesecake when you shovel snow from out in front of their businesses. Babe Ruth was married here a lifetime ago. We have enough haunted houses and assorted weird history to support a thriving mini-industry of ghost tours. A two-mile trail that once played host to a trolley line extends from the edge of town into Baltimore County. On Saturday mornings, I’d walk my dog there and listen to the trickle of stream water. After what’s happened, I’m not sure I’ll ever hear that sound without tensing up.

Water built Ellicott City: The nearby Patapsco River powered the grist mills that the three Ellicott brothers, Joseph, Andrew, and John, established here in the late 1700s. But as beautiful and picturesque the tributaries that flow in and around Main Street are, they also hang over our head like a guillotine blade waiting to drop. This is the second devastating flood to hit Ellicott City since 2016—to say nothing of floods that came through in 1817, 1837, 1868, 1901, 1917, 1923, 1938, 1942, 1952, 1956, 1972, 1975, 1989, and 2011.

The big difference, however, is that while most of these events are credited to the nearby Patapsco River overflowing following sustained heavy rains, often from tropical storms, the 2016 and 2018 floods are different beasts entirely. They swept in following relatively brief but very intense thunderstorms, as billions of gallons of precipitation flowed down the hillsides that surround the town, turning streets into wild rivers of runoff. Harvard atmospheric science student Matthew Cappucci, who writes for the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, put it best in a tweet the evening after the flood:

In a follow-up, Cappucci estimates that the sheer volume of water from the flood was equivalent to “7 billion gallons, 118 million bathtubs [or] 11,000 Olympic swimming pools.” In the days that follow, I will think about how preposterous and impossible those comparisons feel, even if I know logically that they must be accurate.

When we talk about climate change, we think of things like melting glaciers and homeless polar bears, or exotic islands vanishing beneath rising oceans. But now my neighbors and I, residents of an artsy small town that Money dubbed a “best place to live” in 2010, are climate refugees, too. A warming atmosphere holds more moisture, and leads to more extraordinary events like the “training thunderstorms” that pummeled the town with at least six inches of rain over a few hours on Sunday afternoon.

Another exacerbating factor in the 2016 and 2018 floods is the long-term consequences of excessive land development. As a historic district, Ellicott City is unique in that property owners are extremely limited in the kind of major changes they can make to buildings, some of which are over 200 years old. So developers have gone around the town, peppering the surrounding hillsides with condominiums and apartment complexes. Forested land has been replaced with slick concrete and impervious surfaces that deflect runoff. Rainwater that was once absorbed naturally by the environment has nowhere to go but down.

You don’t think about any of this, by the way, when water that hits hard enough to move tons of concrete and steel is rushing through your legs. Survival mode kicks in and you think “I’m going to die if I don’t get out of this.”

I’m writing this article at a coffee shop two miles from the disaster zone, and it still feels like a dream. And I don’t mean that in the trite “Oh, how could this happen?” way, but in the way that dreams are made up of familiar elements that don’t make sense jammed together. There is a four-foot moat where the sidewalk in front of my apartment used to be. Bags of pasta that filled the store window above it are most likely floating somewhere in the Chesapeake Bay. My car, a used 2010 Camaro I parked up the block, is miraculously unharmed, protected by some kind of muscle car magic.

My week has been strange, to say the least. In a journalistic fugue state during the flood, I recorded and uploaded photos and video of the storm to my Twitter and Facebook accounts—images that would end up on nearly every major news outlet. An instinctive “fuck off” to a verified Fox News account asking for permission to use a video snowballed into thousands of retweets, and a lot of arguing over intellectual property laws in my mentions. It’s too much—it’s months, a year, five years packed into less than a week. Ellicott City’s iconic town clock, recently rebuilt and reinstalled after the 2016 storm, is gone. It only follows that time feels fundamentally broken, that things aren’t supposed to happen this fast.

Trauma is a funny thing. My interactions with people feel like they’ve been shot with a weird camera filter; I have difficulty remembering mundane details from the last week and I’ll catch myself telling the same stories over again. In my quieter moments, I remember that a National Guardsman eating dinner at the Mexican restaurant up the block from my home was washed away trying to rescue my friend Kate—Kate, my sister’s friend, who I buy dog treats and kibble from. Sgt. Eddison Hermond was announced as missing after many of us had concluded, prematurely, that at least no one had been killed or seriously injured. His body was recovered in the Patapsco two days later. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who ran his 2015 campaign on repealing a stormwater management fee he dubbed a “rain tax,” honored him by ordering that the Maryland flag be lowered at half mast. I didn’t know Eddison but I know he didn’t deserve to die alone, swept up in a flood that could have been averted, or at least planned for.

When Ellicott City flooded two years ago, there was confusion. This time, there’s anger. Anger that our homes and businesses are gone again. Anger for Eddison and his family. I can’t speak for my neighbors, but when you look in their eyes, you can see how exhausted they are. Many businesses that had been destroyed in 2016 had only reopened within the last year and a half. The proprietor of Bean Hollow, Ellicott City’s homey coffee shop that served as a school night refuge for local high schoolers, has announced that they will not be returning. My neighbor Jason, who owns a toy shop and who gained some measure of fame in the last flood after rescuing a woman from her car, released a statement on Facebook that while he wants to re-open he cannot in good conscience do it in a location that puts his employees and customers in harm’s way. And can you blame him? Three people have died between the 2016 and 2018 floods. “Insult to injury” is too kind to describe watching your store windows burst with flood water while you’re still repaying a loan from the last time this happened.

A town with two catastrophic floods in three years has a problem that can’t be fixed with new windows and restored utilities. I hope this is a wake-up call—the kind of intervention you’d throw for a friend with drinking problem, but on a national scale, if not a global one. The tragedy that has unfolded in Ellicott City is not unique or even particularly remarkable when compared to the thousands who died in New Orleans over a decade ago, or the thousands more who appear to have lost their lives in Puerto Rico less than a year ago. The story of humanity is adapt or die, and it’s time to decide if we’re going to make the kind of serious infrastructure changes this new world demands, so that the neighborhoods, towns, and cities in harm’s way can survive. There is no third strike for Ellicott City, or the Ellicott Cities we all call home.

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