Wednesday evening, up to 2 to 4 inches of rain fell in less than two hours — deluging Washington, D.C.’s northern suburbs. Officials issued flash flood warnings, and high water was reported in Laurel and Columbia. In Ellicott City, the rate of rainfall was reminiscent of some moments during the 2018 flood, though overall not nearly as much water came down. It was a scary reminder of how things have turned deadly twice in recent years, and how quickly they could again in a town that has yet to substantially address its flood vulnerability.
The soaking, which was accompanied by tornado warnings, produced minimal damage and no injuries, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (D) said at a news conference Thursday. “Though yesterday’s storm was nerve wracking for many, the systems that we’ve put in place together worked as intended, especially here in Ellicott City.”
Ball said an outdoor tone alert system, installed in 2019, warned people of the impending danger, and police quickly closed Main Street. He said county crews have worked diligently in recent years to keep the area streams cleared of debris, so they can efficiently carry water downhill past homes and businesses.
The downpours also drenched a Halsey concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion in nearby Columbia, which was called off after water poured through the ceiling and swamped the pit by the stage, leaving many concertgoers in ankle-deep water.
A former mill town, Ellicott City began and prospered on the strength of water that flowed into the Patapsco River. In 1772, three Quaker brothers established a flour mill on its banks, and Ellicott’s Mills, as it was known then, was born.
The town sits below steep hills at the convergence of four creeks that flow into the Patapsco. The earliest and most destructive flood recorded there came in 1868, when the river rose 5 feet in 10 minutes and killed 43 people. Many floods have followed.
The deluges of 2016 and 2018, however, were caused not by the rising river but by water rushing in from above. The 2016 storm turned Main Street into a fearsome river, devastating the historic downtown.
Climatologists say the earth’s warming has increased the intensity of rainstorms in the United States and will continue to do so. “Expected increases in the severity and frequency of heavy precipitation events will affect inland infrastructure in every region …” said the federal government’s 2018 National Climate Assessment.
“This is partly because of climate change, and us ignoring 50 years of climate change,” David Carney, owner of the Wine Bin and past president of Ellicott City Business Owners Association. “We are now paying for this wrath of severe weather, and it’s going to continue. So we need to do what we can to mitigate it.”
County officials say that in recent years they have secured $167 million in federal, state and local funding for flood mitigation, including a $75-million loan the county obtained last month through the Environmental Protection Agency.
Over the years, many residents and business owners have blamed development at higher elevations for the flooding, noting that rooftops and parking lots do not soak up water the way woods and fields do. Instead, it flows to land below. Development is part of the problem, confirmed a flood analysis commissioned by the county after the 2016 storm. But the study said the bulk of the floodwaters would have come even had the watershed been undeveloped.
The flood control plans include a handful of retention ponds, to hold water and then release it slowly, along with a huge drainage conduit, dubbed the North Tunnel, to carry water safely into the Patapsco.
Construction on two of the retention ponds has started, including one near the intersection of U.S. routes 29 and 40 northwest of downtown.
“When you drive by it at that intersection there, it just looks like a huge cavern,” Franz said. “Like you’d never want to fall in there because you’d never, ever get out.”
Franz, who owns a three-story downtown building built in 1890 that houses Attic Antiques ’N Things and the Doll Hospital, said she is optimistic the flood control steps will be effective.
“I mean, I hope I never have to experience it again,” she said. “And I’m thinking the measures they are taking to mitigate this are going to work, I really do.”
County Council member Liz Walsh (D), whose district includes Old Ellicott City, said she is glad the two retention ponds are under construction, but she wishes more were accomplished by now, given the devastation caused by the 2016 flood.
“I will never understand the glacial pace of government, especially in safety matters,” she said.
Walsh, who lives uphill from the river, said that aside from the economic importance of protecting downtown, she fears for the residents who live downhill from her.
“Sitting there in the dark in their living rooms, trying to glean what’s going to happen next from the sounds they can hear from the river behind them, or, you know, how fast the stones are moving,” she said. “I just cannot begin to imagine what that’s like to have lived in that circumstance for as long as they have.”