An illustration of the Memorial Day flood in Ellicott City, Maryland.
In 2016, Ellicott City, Maryland, was hit with a "1,000-Year Storm." Less than two years later, it happened again. Alicia Tatone

Storms supercharged by climate change pose a dire threat to river towns. After two catastrophic floods, tiny Ellicott City faces a critical decision: Rebuild, or retreat?

ELLICOTT CITY, Md.—The floor beneath Sally Tennant’s feet was thumping, as if it had a heartbeat—an irregular one, with each thud getting louder and more violent. When she looked out the window of her store, she discovered why: A river of muddy water was gushing down the street, and it was sending tree branches, rocks, pieces of fencing—anything the water swept up—crashing into the side of the building.

It’s happening again.

Tennant opened the front door of her craft and jewelry store, Discoveries, and did what safety officials say you should never do during a flash flood: She went into the water. It was nearly knee deep, flowing down Main Street and rising quickly. The rain was unrelenting: a ferocious, sustained downpour.

But the water in the street had not reached the Forget-Me-Not Factory yet. The gift shop across the street occupied a four-story building faced in sturdy granite, and Tennant decided to head there rather than risk getting trapped in her two-story brick and wood structure.

The refuge Tennant found in her neighbors’ shop didn’t last long. Soon, owners Barry and Nancy Gibson were trying to stop water from rushing in through both the front and back of their store. Runoff from the steep hillside behind the building poured into multiple floors at once. And as the water levels rose, those trapped inside realized that their best escape route was to climb up the hill.

The Gibsons led the group, including one shop employee, up the muddy hillside. The rain was so intense that Tennant couldn’t see more than a few inches in front of her. Sheets of water cascaded down the hill. With each labored step, she felt herself sink deeper into the mud. It ate her shoes, but she kept climbing. “I thought I was going to die of a damn heart attack,” Tennant recalls.

Beneath her, lower Main Street had become a raging river that engulfed the first floor of most buildings. About 50 people inside Tea on the Tiber, a Victorian tea house that sits over a branch of the stream that courses beneath the town, now huddled on the second floor, listening to the river tear the dining room apart beneath them. A woman named Jane called 911 on her cellphone.

“Are we going to die?” she asked the dispatcher.

***

The Memorial Day weekend downpour that struck Ellicott City, Maryland, on May 27, 2018 was a “1,000-year storm”—a rain event so intense that, in any given year, it has a 1-in-1,000 (or 0.1 percent) chance of happening. On that day, back-to-back thunderstorms dumped more than eight inches of rain in just three hours, overwhelming the three streams that converge on the town’s Main Street and sending water crashing down the hill. By evening, according to rain gauges to the north, as much as 15 inches had fallen. The resulting flash flood devastated the historic downtown and killed Eddison “Eddie” Hermond, an Air Force veteran and Maryland Army National Guardsman who was swept away trying to rescue a woman trapped by the floodwaters.

Flooding in Ellicott City is hardly new—the mill town has had at least 18 major floods since it started recording them in 1789. This one, however, was different: It was the second such 1,000-year storm in less than two years. On a Saturday night in July 2016, thunderstorms dropped six inches of rain on the city, triggering flash flooding that killed two people and caused an estimated $22 million in damages, plus $42 million in lost economic activity. In 2011, Tropical Storm Lee generated yet another serious flood. Collectively, the trio of disasters finally forced Ellicott City to take an anguished look at just what its future is likely to look like.

The warming world is a wetter one: For every 1° F increase in temperatures, the atmosphere holds about 4 percent more water vapor. That means heavier and more frequent rain in some places. Already, flooding is the most common natural disaster in the U.S., accounting for nearly three-quarters of presidential disaster declarations over the last decade. One recent report estimates that 41 million people live in 100-year flood plains across the U.S., more than triple the number the Federal Emergency Management Agency predicted in their most current flood maps.

The rising oceans that imperil cities like Miami and New York may grab more headlines, but urban and inland flooding happens almost daily in the U.S., according to the first-ever national assessment of such events. From Texas and Louisiana to the upper Midwest, river towns and cities now find themselves reshaped by chronic inundation; the waters that were once their economic lifeblood are now threats to life and limb.

But it wasn’t just climate change that made both the 2016 and 2018 Ellicott City floods so lethal, many locals believe: Some blame the decades of suburban development patterns in the hills above the historic town, which replaced forested slopes with impervious surfaces that sluiced stormwater into town.

After the 2016 flood, county leaders debated a range of costly mitigation strategies, which involved constructing more stormwater ponds, building stream walls, widening the culverts beneath the streets, and building parking garages engineered to catch stormwater. A moratorium on new development was proposed, but didn’t pass.

That debate took on a fresh urgency after the Memorial Day disaster, which emphasized how fundamentally vulnerable the town was. In its third century, a picturesque mill town faces a profound reckoning, one that mirrors the challenge so many human settlements worldwide are confronting: When does retreating rather than rebuilding become the only rational choice?

***

Ellicott City in the early 20th century. (Library of Congress)

On a dreary morning in March, I meet Jim Caldwell, who was then Howard County’s director of community sustainability, at Jax Edwin—a men’s boutique, coffeeshop, and barbershop all loaded into a three-story building on Main Street. He starts our conversation the same way he starts all his flood presentations, with the three Ellicott brothers: Joseph, Andrew, and John.

“They settled here,” he says, pointing to a map of the Tiber-Hudson watershed, “because they needed the water.”

The town sits at the bottom of a steep valley, where four river branches—Tiber, Hudson, Autumn Hill, and New Cut—feed into the larger Patapsco River. In 1772, this was the right spot to harness the power of water and build a mill, so the enterprising Ellicotts constructed roads and houses right on top of the streams. If you look at a map, the waterways snake back and forth underneath Main Street.

Ellicott City is built atop a network of streams that once provided power for the town’s mills. (Map tiles via Wikimedia Maps, CC BY-SA 4.0. David H. Montgomery/CityLab)

As a result, the town has always been at the mercy of the river. The deadliest incident was in July 1868, when a 20-foot wall of water was said to have crashed into the heart of Ellicott City. Vivid illustrations of rescues made via boats and of houses getting washed away accompanied a dramatic description of the disaster in Harper’s Weekly. Between 40 and 50 people were killed, and the entire flour mill industry was destroyed.

But the first “top-down” flood, in which floodwaters rushed in from the top of the watershed rather than rose from the streambeds, came in 1952. That’s the same kind that hit Ellicott City in both 2016 and 2018. “You get a little bit of a snowball up here,” Caldwell says, pointing to the top of Main Street, which is about 140 feet higher than the lower end. “By the time it gets down, it’s a huge snowball because everything is running down the hill to get to the Patapsco.”

That geography makes avoiding flooding entirely all but impossible. “Ellicott City was completely built in the 100-year floodplain,” says Caldwell. “If this was an open stream today and somebody said, ‘I want to build a city here,’ they couldn’t do it.”

Historically, after every major flood—they came about every 10 years, as in 1901, 1917, and 1923—the town rebuilt. Twin blows from hurricanes Agnes (in 1972) and Eloise (1975) convinced many residents and shopkeepers to move away, but new ones moved in, and Ellicott City was reborn as a tourist town.

Flood City, USA: Ellicott City is no stranger to inundation. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes left hundreds homeless.  (Howard County Historical Society)

It enjoys a strikingly beautiful setting—a postcard-pretty 19th-century Main Street of tidy homes and shops built of local granite, threaded amid a rugged woody landscape just miles from Baltimore. The historic district, only accessible via a handful of narrow winding roads, has been spared new development, and its economy is increasingly based on serving the needs of visitors, with ghost tours, a railroad museum, and an aggressively whimsical stock of antique and trinket shops.

The little town served as a funky respite from the generic shopping strips that saturate the surrounding suburbs. I grew up just 10 minutes away, in a neighborhood of cookie-cutter single-family homes called Taylor Village. To Howard County teens of the early 2000s, EC was a good place to hang out: We’d gossip over chai lattes at Bean Hollow, rummage through racks of dresses at vintage stores, and wander through all four floors of the Forget-Me-Not Factory, the dragon-and-fairy-filled gift emporium at the foot of Main Street. There, fancifully attired owner Barry Gibson—aka Barry the Bubble Man—held court on weekends, blowing giant bubbles for the crowds of visitors.

Ellicott City was growing in those years: From 1980 to 1990, the number of town residents doubled from nearly 22,000 to over 40,000. Today, there are more 76,000 residents living in the unincorporated community. As the hills above and around the town suburbanized, the area’s delicate hydrology was quietly changing. Today, nearly one-third of Tiber-Hudson watershed’s once-forested landmass has been replaced with impervious surfaces, mostly from housing development.

Most Howard County development was built to withstand 10-year storms, as required by the state. “Everything has to be designed so that these new developments can handle four inches of rain in 24 hours,” Caldwell says. “That’s very different from six inches of rain in two hours.” In the mid-1990s, in response to concerns about the impact of development on the Chesapeake Bay, the county tightened stormwater regulations within the watershed, requiring all new developments to be capable of controlling the runoff from 100-year storms, or 8 inches in 24 hours. Building a system capable of handling a 1,000-year storm, he says, was never an option.

Those regulations were also focused on a specific problem: limiting the flow of chemicals, nutrients, and sediments into the Chesapeake Bay, not preventing floods. “All the stormwater management design, and the money for those designs, has been to improve the quality of the water,” he says. “The situation we have here is that this is a water quantity problem. And we don’t have the money to [address] it.”

***

The Sunday of the storm was humid and overcast—another hot, wet day in what would prove to be the rainiest year on record in the Baltimore-Washington area. There was a slight drizzle; at one point, the sun peeked out. Tennant was expecting a busy day at her store, even with thunderstorms in the forecast for the afternoon.

Old Ellicott City is a popular holiday weekend destination; on that day, the coffeeshops and bars were full of tourists and regulars. Almost two years after the 2016 flood, only a few storefronts remained vacant, and several new establishments, like a comic book store and and a Syrian café, had opened up, helping to freshen up Main Street’s appeal.

Around 4 o’clock, Eddie Hermond burst through the doors of La Palapa Grill and Cantina to meet up with his pal Joseph Lopez and his wife, Sara. He was soaking wet. Rain was falling in earnest by late afternoon. The 39-year-old National Guardsman and Air Force veteran had tried to wait out the rain in his car, but eventually gave up. The rain didn’t look like it was stopping any time soon.

One look at his face and Lopez could tell his buddy was hungover from the cookout they’d both attended Saturday night.

“You look like you need a drink,” Lopez said.

“Yeah, I feel like crap,” Hermond said.

“You look like crap.”

Lopez ordered Eddie a shot of tequila—not his favorite drink. When offered a second round, Eddie ordered an Old Grand-Dad instead.​​​​

The friends had met in the Air Force more than 20 years ago, but they hadn’t talked in months. Still, they easily fell back into their old routine. Eddie talked about the surprise visit from his mom and his aunt as they picked over their appetizers.

Eddison “Eddie” Hermond (far right) and Joseph Lopez (middle) met in the Air Force over 20 years ago. (Courtesy of Sara Lopez)

They’d been part of a rambunctious group of friends Eddie had gathered around him from various parts of his life—some from the Guard or the Air Force, others were colleagues from the restaurants he worked in when he wasn’t on active duty. Still others were just folks he met along the way. Eddie had that bartender’s knack for getting people of different backgrounds together. “You’d run into Eddie at some point,” says Lopez. “Then he’d introduce you to his friends, and then you’d have new friends.”

They’d stay up late playing games like Taboo and Cards Against Humanity, or they’d meet up at Main Street watering holes like La Palapa and Phoenix Emporium, to talk sports over beers. Eddie was originally from New York; he loved the Giants and the Knicks and would fervently defend them. Six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a wide smile that revealed killer dimples, Eddie was a smooth talker and a jokester, with a touch of mischief.  

“Eddie had everything set up for him to be an elitist jerk,” says Stephanie Williams, who met him more than 10 years ago through her husband, Tariq. But instead, Eddie was more like a father figure for his friends: protective and always doling out life lessons when no one asked for them. They called him Ward Cleaver, the stern-but-loving dad from the 1950s sitcom Leave It to Beaver. Some had another nickname for him: Superman, his favorite superhero.

A few miles away over at Taylor Village, Jon Weinstein was at a neighbor’s house party, watching the weather with growing anxiety.

Weinstein was the Howard County councilman representing Ellicott City, and when these summer downpours came, he had a routine. He’d start from the bottom of Main Street, where the street meets the Patapsco River, and head up to the top, stopping at the spots that he knew from experience were most likely to flood. He’d check the stream below Tiber Alley, then make his way up to the back of another narrow passageway, where he could see if anything was coming down from the New Cut branch. He’d peek into residents’ backyards, then move on to the two main public parking lots. One was located behind La Palapa, atop the branch of the Tiber River. The other was sat above the Hudson branch.

But before he could excuse himself and get to his car, his phone buzzed: At 4:26 p.m., the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning, saying that flooding was imminent. The rain was starting to overwhelm the streams that converge on town, and a torrent of water was racing downhill toward Main Street.

***

There was something surreal about that day, the way the ordinariness of a Sunday afternoon gave way to catastrophe—slowly at first, and then, as the rain intensified, with a terrifying speed.

Meteorologists call the persistent downpours that hit Ellicott City that day “training thunderstorms”—they moved like train cars, with new storms developing right in the path of an existing one. With levels of atmospheric moisture at a near record high that day, there was plenty of fuel to burn.

The first round of storms hit between 2:46 p.m. and 4:26 p.m. Flooding was initially minor, until heavier rain overwhelmed the stream channels that converge on Main Street. (National Weather Service)

Weinstein had just been down on Main Street an hour earlier, shopping and walking around in what he says was “pretty nice weather.” Now he was in his car, trying to get to the county’s office of emergency management. The streets of Taylor Village were starting to flood; he quickly came across a family trapped inside a car with floodwaters up to the windows. Next thing he knew, Weinstein had waded in to pull them out. Meanwhile, his phone trembled with calls and texts from colleagues and residents telling him what he already knew: It was happening again.

The floodwater came barreling down the road by 4:30 p.m., and within 10 minutes, the river burst through the window displays at the front of the former Caplan’s Department Store, a longtime downtown landmark, and several surrounding stores. The water funneled down Main Street, rising to eight-foot-high rapids near Discoveries at the bottom of the hill. The force of the surge ripped up sidewalks, scouring pavement and bricks and earth from building foundations. Debris carried downstream blocked the culverts underneath the roads, diverting even more water to Main Street.

Behind La Palapa, the parking lot began flooding. From the back porch of the restaurant, Eddie Hermond and his two friends joined a group of people watching in awe as the current lifted cars and shoved them aside. A massive dumpster caterwauled down the street. “It was the first time I’d seen what water could actually do,” says Lopez. “That was the moment that we went from having a good time to—I was scared for our lives.”

At about 5 p.m., the rain eased, and the waters began to recede. But the respite was brief: Within 15 minutes another intense band of precipitation moved in, as powerful as the first. Joseph retreated back into the restaurant to help the staff try to keep water from rushing in. They wedged towels underneath the front door, barricading it with tables and chairs to counter the force of the water outside. According to the 911 call La Palapa owner Simon Cortes made just before 5 p.m., about 250 people were trapped inside the restaurant, many from a wedding party downstairs.

Next door, in the pet shop Clipper’s Canine Cafe, owner Kate Bowman was screaming for help. When her store flooded, she crated her cat, Chubbs, and jumped out the window into the waist-high water in the parking lot. That’s when Eddie saw her, with her cat carrier held above her head. Between them was an overflowing creek that coursed through the parking lot. He yelled for her to stay calm and to stay put: He was coming to get her.

There’s a fuzzy video recorded by a bystander at 5:20 p.m. that shows what happened next. Hermond carefully wades through the moving water toward Bowman. When he reaches the wooden fence that separated him from the stream, he climbs over it. Perhaps he thought the water on the other side would be only waist high, and if he held on to the railing, he could walk on the grassy patch along the creek’s edge to get to Bowman. Maybe he thought he could swim across it, since Bowman was able to remain standing on the other side. But the power of the waterway was deceptive: It had swollen into a fierce river, and when Eddie took a step down from the fence, it picked him up and swept him off his feet.

***

Lieutenant Jeff Carl of Howard County’s fire department arrived with his water rescue team at the top of Main Street at about 7:30 p.m., but it wasn’t clear who or what they were looking for. He’d received reports of as many as three people missing in the wake of the rains, which finally tapered off around 7. “Nobody could give us hard facts,” he says.

The search began at the parking lot and would take the rescue team all the way down to the Patapsco River, beyond the line that separated Ellicott City from Baltimore County.

Police cars block access to Ellicott City after the Memorial Day weekend flood in May 2018. (Alex Edelman/Getty)

A little after midnight, as the team searched along the creeks, Eddie Hermond was officially declared missing. But the search process was complicated by the massive amount of debris swept up as the river blasted through the downtown shops, leaving clothing, shoes, and all manner of objects strewn along the flood’s course. “The amount of debris down there was so much. To figure out what was relevant was a time-consuming and a very tedious kind of process,” Carl says.

Ellicott City’s disaster-prone reputation was well known, thanks to the 2016 storm, and news of the repeat flood spread quickly. Those stories were soon accompanied by photos of a missing National Guardsman. Eddie’s friends were not surprised: He was always the first to offer to get people out of trouble. And whatever trouble he got himself into, he always seemed to come out unscathed. Lopez liked to joke that Eddie should have been dead 20 times already.

When Lopez first told Stephanie and Tariq—who live in Seattle—that Eddie had disappeared, they found it hard not to brush it off as a false alarm. For a long time, the friends held on to the hope that Eddie was sitting somewhere along the Patapsco River after the storm—hurt, perhaps, but still alive.

“We’re all going to be so mad at him when he shows up,” Stephanie remembers thinking.  

***

It was different in 2016.

Few in Ellicott City questioned the wisdom of rebuilding after that storm. Instead, they rallied: Business owners like Tennant put in long days raking out mud and fixing damaged shops in the summer heat. Neighbors, volunteers, and county officials like Weinstein and then-county executive Alan Kittleman all pitched in. “EC Strong” became their battle cry.

The aftermath of the 2016 flood, which left Main Street caked in mud. (mpi34/MediaPunch/IPX)

Most didn’t have flood insurance, because of high premiums. Tennant was forced to empty her savings to rebuild. Angie and Michel Tersiguel, owners of the French restaurant Tersiguel’s, considered closing the 42-year-old restaurant that Michel’s father, Fernand, had founded. They faced $250,000 in damages—the wine cellar alone was worth about $40,000. For Angie, it was the emotional damage that drained her; she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, she says, and started seeing a therapist.

But on October 26, 2016, just three months after the flood, the restaurant reopened. So did many others, and that November, hundreds came out to celebrate the restoration of more than 70 old and new businesses. “Although we may have come through a storm, we rise to be better,” Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings said in his speech.

Sally Tennant celebrates the reopening of her store Discoveries in November 2016, after the first “1,000-year” storm ravaged Main Street in Ellicott City. She won’t be able to rebuild a second time following the 2018 flood. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The aftermath of the 2018 flood was far bleaker. Again, Main Street was coated in mud; again, dozens of stores and buildings were torn up by the water and debris. Cars that had slammed into poles and buildings piled on top of each other at the foot of the street, and massive tree roots protruded from broken window displays. But this time, few had any stirring words about rebuilding.

Authorities restricted access to the town on Monday as rescue officials continued searching for Eddie Hermond along the banks of the Patapsco. Joseph and Sara Lopez’s house in the nearby suburb of Columbia became a command post for their friends, who were frustrated by the lack of progress. “But we didn’t know what to do, or how we could help,” says Sara. Some would eventually go out looking on their own; soon, Hermond’s National Guard unit began its own search.

Finally, at noon on Tuesday, the Guard crew found the body in the river a mile from the Main Street bridge. Even in his death, Eddie brought strangers together, Lopez says: That’s when he met many of Eddie’s Guard buddies. Together, they gave their comrade a final salute along the side of the road as police escorted his body away.

That same day, officials let residents and business owners return to their property on Main Street to see the damage and salvage what they could. In Discoveries, Tennant found her shop in ruins, even worse than 2016: The debris hammering against her building had broken through her floor, leaving a gaping hole. The river had entered and swallowed nearly everything inside. “Every fixture. Every huge case. Everything went down that river,” she says.

Tennant didn’t know if she had the will to rebuild a second time, and she certainly didn’t have the funds. But as she soon learned, for her, rebuilding would not even be an option.

***

The notion of “flood-proofing” a place like Ellicott City, where regular inundation has been all but engineered into the town’s foundation, involves setting reasonable expectations for success. Over the years, the town had added countermeasures like flood alerts. But when the 2016 disaster was repeated less than two years later, finding a way to bring water levels down became an existential priority. “We had come so far so quickly,” Weinstein says, referring to how swiftly the town recovered in 2016. “But, now, unless we do something huge, this town is never coming back.”

After poring through the details of both the new flood and the hydrology studies the county had commissioned since 2011, in August 2018 then-County Executive Alan Kittleman announced a five-year, $50 million master plan to protect the town from flash flooding. That plan called for the complete demolition of 10 buildings on the lower east end, the heart of the historic district. Another seven homes would come down on the west end, and two new culverts would be built along the Tiber Branch. The overall idea: Retain more water farther north in the watershed and widen the channel through which the floodwater could flow, easing the catastrophic funnel effect. That, according to the county, would bring the level of potential flooding down to four or six feet.

Many residents and fans of the town, however, were horrified by the prospect of destroying the character of old Ellicott City. “The architecture, the building, and the fabric is rooted in its past,” says Nick Redding, president of the advocacy group Preservation Maryland, which strongly opposed Kittleman’s plan. “It hasn’t been changed or glossed over and turned into sort of a cleaned-up version of the past.”

Saving the town’s historic character isn’t just about aesthetics, Redding insists: In a town that lives on tourism dollars, demolishing its old buildings means diminishing its visitor appeal and damaging its economic viability. There had to be a better way.

But others in the community saw it differently. Angie Tersiguel was one of 30 business and building owners who signed letters in support of the plan. “[The buildings] are not the culprit, but they do cause complications and I think keeping them is unethical,” she says. “That doesn’t make it any less painful or worth protecting, but the risk they cause is just so big.”

By October 2, the county council approved a budget of nearly $17 million to begin the mitigation. Mark Hemmis, whose Phoenix Emporium bar is in one of the condemned buildings, declined to speak with CityLab, but Tersiguel says the two had spoken about accepting the painful truth about the city’s future. “I can’t speak for him,” she says. “But we talked about how when the next flood comes, do we want to be in charge of keeping some 40 people safe?”

Tennant’s building is also among the condemned, but she’s unconvinced that the only option to save the town is to sacrifice her building. “What do we gain just by demolishing the building, and is it worth what you lose tearing down the whole half of that side [of the street]?” she says. “Because that’s a heck of a price.”

In the November 2018 election, however, incumbent Kittleman was unseated by Democratic challenger Calvin Ball, one of the two council members who’d voted against the spending bills. The new county executive halted Kittleman’s plan and, in December, released his own, dubbed “EC Safe and Sound.” In it, he directed the public works department to explore options outside of demolition. “It’s important not to use a sledgehammer when only a scalpel is necessary,” he said in his announcement.

Several streams converge beneath historic Ellicott City, and heavy development in the watershed has complicated flood mitigation. Older construction (in dark green) was not subject to stormwater management regulations. (Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning)

The effort to save historic buildings in Ellicott City was accompanied by another push, this one aimed at curbing development in the hills surrounding the town. In July, the county council passed a one-year moratorium on development in the watershed, so the county can do more extensive studies on land use and stormwater management. The bill, proposed by Weinstein while he was still in office, halted an estimated 600 housing units for which developers were seeking permit approval. Ball’s administration and Councilwoman Liz Walsh—who defeated Weinstein in the 2018 election—are proposing to extend the moratorium by three months.

Jim Caldwell, the county’s former community chief of sustainability, thinks such legislation would be a futile gesture at this stage. The impermeable suburb-scape of Howard County is a done deal: He calculates that 90 percent of the land in the Ellicott City watershed is already developed, and 65 percent of that was completed before 1984, when Maryland began requiring developers to include drainage ponds and infiltration systems.

Even after that, enforcement was spotty. According to a 1988 state evaluation of Howard County’s program, inspection duties were scattered amid public works staff with little to no knowledge of stormwater management, and the county generously gave out waivers, rationalizing that detaining stormwater and then quickly releasing it would increase flood peaks. It wasn’t until 1998 that a follow-up review declared that the county sufficiently improved their practices.

To figure out the role unconstrained development may have played in modern floods, Caldwell commissioned engineers to model the 2016 storm—which meteorologists say was less intense than the 2018 one—on the 1850s landscape of Ellicott City, when only Main Street was developed and the rest was forest. They found that the height of the flooding in the model was two feet lower than what was actually recorded in 2016. In a storm of that magnitude, the difference in destruction was negligible.

“If you get six feet of water, it’s not different from having eight feet of water. You’ve lost,” Caldwell says. “Obviously development has an issue here, but it’s really about the amount of water that came down so quickly. That’s the challenge.”

But Weinstein believes the real value in the development moratorium is to prevent other parts of Howard County from suffering the kind of damage Ellicott City is already experiencing. “The point I was focused on was creating a new zoning overlay, which says that there are certain areas sprinkled throughout the county that are sensitive watersheds,” he says. “They may not be affected at this point by regular flooding, like in the Tiber-Hudson watershed. But why wait?”

***

For nearly a year, the town remained in limbo as debates wore on among local leaders over what caused the floods and how to save it. Residents grew increasingly frustrated over the uncertainty of their future, and the fading urgency to address it. “I have been living in a state of annoyance since May 27,” says Angie Tersiguel.“We’re getting ready to cross this [one-year] threshold. Have we made any significant changes?”

Tersiguel’s restaurant re-opened a few months after the storm, but many others haven’t. Several storefronts remain empty. One commercial real estate site lists at least eight units for lease. On the lower end, a row of about a dozen buildings are boarded up, their fate undetermined. Posters reading “Believe in OEC”—for Old Ellicott City—do little to mask the barrenness of the strip. Believing in the little town, Tersiguel fears, won’t be sufficient this time: It needs outside help. “We have history, we have character, and we have memories,” she says. “But is that enough?”

(Alicia Tatone)

In May, with the anniversary looming, Ball put five new flood mitigation options on the table as part of his EC Safe and Sound plan, with price tags ranging from $91.5 million to $175 million. On May 12, Ball announced that the county would go with the second-costliest option. Four buildings will be knocked down, to open up the area for water to flow through. The scheme also includes boring a tunnel further up the hill that engineers say will divert water away from Main Street, and building several retention ponds within the Hudson-Tiber watershed. With a storm as powerful as 2016, the county estimates it can bring down the flooding on lower Main Street to about three feet.

The plan is ambitious, by the county’s own admission, and is expected to take at least five years. To come up with the $140 million price tag, the county will have to work with state and federal partners. “We know that while our plan costs more, it does a better job of actually addressing the problem,” Ball tells CityLab. “And our plan costs less than rebuilding every time we have a major storm.”

But Ron Peters, a property owner on Main Street and a member of the county’s Flood Work Group, is skeptical. In a letter to the county, he questioned the accuracy of the flood levels. Their models, he wrote, were based on “clean” water—free of debris like cars and logs that tended to clog drainage systems and culverts during a storm. He also disputed the cost and timeline, anticipating that obtaining the licenses and approval for the demolitions will take longer than the county expects. But he’s waiting on the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct an evaluation—needed for the project to move forward—before making his final judgement.

“At least we have a plan now,” he says with a wry smile.

Meanwhile, the county is still negotiating with some property owners about acquiring their buildings, one of which is Tennant’s. Since last May, Tennant has been living nearby with her younger son. She’s also set up a temporary shop across the street from where her boarded-up building sits. A generous landlord, hoping to give Main Street’s economy a boost, is renting the space to her for $1 a month. But a new tenant has already signed the lease for her spot. “It’s hard not to be angry when somebody can be so careless with my life, with this town,” she says. “We didn’t matter enough.”

She acknowledges that storms are getting more intense, but isn’t convinced that’s the biggest threat facing Ellicott City: “The perpetrators of the problem are the decisions that the government made,” she says. “Stop telling me it’s climate change.”

***

On a recent Sunday morning, I meet up with Joseph and Sara Lopez for brunch at Victoria Gastro Pub, a restaurant in Howard County where Eddie Hermond had worked as a bartender. In the area’s restaurant worker community, Eddie is well remembered: The Maryland Restaurant Association now has a memorial scholarship in his name.

With the anniversary of the flood approaching, Joseph tells me he’s been thinking a lot about that day. The funny thing is how ordinary it was: It started with a text from Eddie asking to hang out, and then swiftly snowballed into something else. He thinks about how different things might be if he hadn’t answered.

This year, the couple plan to return to La Palapa for Memorial Day with a bunch of Eddie’s friends, to swap stories and get some drinks. That’s the thing, he says; everyone has stories.

As we talk, a server pours a shot of Jameson’s whiskey and sets it high up on a shelf behind the counter. Sara tells me that it’s a shot for Eddie—that was his favorite drink. The whiskey will sit up there behind the bar until it evaporates, and then they’ll fill it back up again.  

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