After two rare storms inundate Ellicott City, Maryland, the town tries to sort through what can be saved.
By Jared Brey
The Tiber-Hudson watershed, in Howard County, Maryland, drains three-and-a-half square miles of mostly developed land in and around Ellicott City, a historic mill town founded in 1772 on the banks of the Patapsco River. The terrain surrounding the town is steep. On the south side of lower Main Street, a series of mill buildings is packed alongside and astride the Tiber Branch, one of the watershed’s three main tributaries to the Patapsco. On the north side, old stone buildings are backed up to a hill made of granite bedrock. Rainwater flows downhill, east toward the river, and in Ellicott City, there’s nothing farther downhill than lower Main Street, the historic center of the town.
When I visited at the beginning of February, the sun was out and it was warm enough to leave my jacket in the car. Walking downhill into lower Main, where the street is narrower, the air temperature dropped and the shadows darkened. On my right, behind a row of boarded-up storefronts, I could hear the Tiber Branch rushing along parallel to Main Street. It smelled like a basement.
On the night of July 30, 2016, a storm rolled in and sat directly on top of Ellicott City, dropping 6.5 inches of rain in the watershed in just three hours. Water jumped the banks of the Hudson Branch uphill and flowed down Main Street, flooding most of the buildings and sweeping around 200 cars downstream, with some ending up in the Patapsco River, according to reports in the Baltimore Sun. The Tiber Branch, which captures both the Hudson and the New Cut Branches before dumping into the Patapsco, hit its peak velocity toward lower Main, strong enough to break through the back side of some of the buildings. In one video posted by a resident on YouTube, amid the steady flow of water rolling down Main Street, a powerful rush of water shoots out the front windows of Caplan’s Department Store. The water damaged buildings all along Main Street and reached a maximum depth of more than six feet toward the east end. Diners were trapped on the second floor of restaurants on lower Main, and Tersiguel’s French Country Restaurant, on upper Main, lost much of its wine cellar and equipment in the basement. Two people were killed.
In the aftermath of the flood, which was later categorized as a 1,000-year flood—a marginally useful term referring to a flood with a 0.1 percent chance of occurring in any given year—Howard County officials and Ellicott City residents and businesses vowed to bounce back stronger than before. They launched a master planning effort aimed at becoming a “model, resilient community” with the core goals of rebuilding, protecting the environment, preserving the town’s heritage, and revitalizing the economy. And they began sorting through everything from flood-mitigation interventions to rebranding campaigns. By the time a year passed, officials reported, 90 percent of businesses had returned to Main Street.
Then, last May, just weeks before a draft of the long-range master plan was set to be made public, it happened again. Another storm dropped nearly the exact same amount of rain in three hours on a Sunday afternoon, this time with the heaviest rain falling in two waves. The Hudson and Tiber Branches jumped their banks. Painstakingly renovated buildings were destroyed anew. Angela Tersiguel, a co-owner of Tersiguel’s, laid off her entire staff for the second time in two years. Eddison Hermond, a National Guardsman, was swept away by the rushing waters as he tried to help a resident who was rescuing her cat, and officials found his body on the banks of the Patapsco two days later, according to news reports.
After the second flood, then-County Executive Allan Kittleman directed the team of consultants working on the master plan, led by the Baltimore-based landscape architecture firm Mahan Rykiel, to develop a five-year flood-mitigation action plan, prioritizing life safety above the four previously outlined planning goals. Over the next few months, prior to the county executive’s election in November, the county’s plan crystallized into a series of moves meant to aid stream conveyance throughout the watershed. The signature move was the creation of a river park at the bottom of Main Street, with terraced steps and a stage for performances. To create the park, the county would have to acquire and demolish 10 buildings on lower Main—10 of the oldest buildings in Ellicott City. Kittleman, a Republican, formally introduced the plan at the end of October, just a few weeks before losing his re-election campaign. By that point, to preservationist groups and many residents of the town, the plan to save Ellicott City looked a lot like a plan to destroy it.
When I met Tom McGilloway, ASLA, a principal at Mahan Rykiel, he was standing in a small brick plaza in parking lot D with Isaac Hametz, ASLA, the firm’s research director, and Bryan Dunn, the director of communications and business development. Parking lot D is on upper Main Street, close to Tersiguel’s. On the far side of the parking lot, the south-flowing Hudson Branch briefly springs out from a channel beneath La Palapa Grill & Cantina, bends to the east, then ducks under the pavement before appearing again on the other side of the plaza, where it joins with the Tiber. Because the streams in that part of the town are stuffed into channels that are too narrow for their peak flow, they gained more velocity as they flowed toward lower Main, where the worst destruction occurred.
“This is the point where everything comes together,” McGilloway said.
After the 2016 flood, as one planning official said at a public meeting the following year, “The goal was to bring Ellicott City back to a state of normalcy as soon as possible.” That goal required immediate cleanup and restoration work, such as repairing and stabilizing retaining walls and other infrastructure. But Mahan Rykiel was hired to coordinate a master plan that took a longer view.
“The flooding was just one aspect of it, but addressing the flooding provided an opportunity to almost hit restart on the economy, to deal with some things like the lack of public space, to deal with parking, to deal with opportunities for infill development,” McGilloway said. “Before the 2018 flood, we were talking about some pretty significant interventions up here that demonstrated that we could take the flooding off of this part of Main Street, if we keep the water here and address this. It didn’t solve lower Main, but it didn’t make lower Main worse.”
By the spring of 2018, before the second flood, the team had developed a plan for upper Main that involved removing parts of two buildings on the west end of parking lot D to create a wider, open channel for the Hudson to flow through, replacing the lot spaces with structured parking, and building streamside amenities along the way. The idea behind all the interventions was to give rushing water a chance to spread out and slow down as it moves toward the Patapsco.
Throughout the planning process, many Ellicott City residents maintained a strong sense that recent development in the hills above Main Street, where the pattern is suburban, is what caused the flooding, or at least what made it so destructive. And it’s true that those developments reduce the absorptive capacity of the land and make flooding worse. But according to the hydrology and hydraulic studies carried out by McCormick Taylor, the engineering firm hired by Howard County, development is not the primary factor. If everything in the watershed except for Main Street were restored to “woods in good condition”—the full absorptive capacity of forested land prior to any development—discharge flows would be reduced less than 30 percent during 100-year storm events, the firm concluded. Lower Main would still be in the center of the floodplain, and it would still be under four to six feet of water.
“If you just had Main Street developed but everything else in the watershed was woods in good condition, you wouldn’t have the same level, but you’d still have significant flooding, because this is all granite,” McGilloway said. “The intensity of the water that comes down, even if [the land] is vegetated, most of it rolls off. It’s like a sponge. You pour water slowly on a sponge, it absorbs it. You pour it really fast, it rolls off. You have the same thing here, so we’re obviously constrained. You could, I imagine, wipe out the whole town and do a broader floodplain with soft edges, but…”
He didn’t finish the thought, because wiping out the town is explicitly not the point. We walked downhill toward lower Main.
The sidewalks in downtown Ellicott City are narrow, and during the last two floods, all the brick paving was torn out of the ground and washed into the river. The oldest buildings in the town sit at the bottom of Main Street, as does Ellicott City Station, a stop on the B&O Railroad, and one of the oldest surviving passenger train stations in the United States. As Jim Irvin, the director of the Howard County Department of Public Works, told me, “The most important thing in town is in the worst spot in the watershed.”
After the 2018 flood, when the focus of the planning effort shifted to life safety, the owners of 10 of the buildings at the bottom of Main Street approached the county about acquiring them. Like the rest of the town, the owners had been eager to bring their buildings back to life after the 2016 flood, but after the 2018 flood, according to former county officials, they weren’t convinced they could do it again. After 2016, many Ellicott City residents had a sense that they had lived through a once-in-a-lifetime event. After 2018, there was a sense that it was likely to happen over and over again, at any time. When it did, the buildings on lower Main would be in for repeated beatings, with no telling how long they would stay standing. So the county began negotiations to acquire the buildings, and Mahan Rykiel was put to the task of designing a concept for what might take their place.
McGilloway was carrying a small laptop in his hand with a PDF of the master plan open on the screen. As we walked toward lower Main, we had to raise our voices over the rush of the Tiber. He showed me the last iteration of the plan, from October 2018, which featured the terraced river park in place of the historic mill buildings on the south side of lower Main Street.
“It’s horrible to lose this group of historic buildings, but that could potentially make Ellicott City stronger,” McGilloway said. “I’m a preservationist—a lot of my work is preservation. But I wasn’t ready to die on the sword saying ‘This is going to ruin Ellicott City.’ I think it would make it a different Ellicott City, but I think it would have been part of Ellicott City’s evolving history, and responding to nature.”
Rob Brennan, an architect and the Howard County director for Preservation Maryland, lives in nearby Catonsville but keeps his practice in a converted church building high on a hill across the Patapsco River from downtown Ellicott City. Until 2016, he had an office on upper Main Street.
“The basement of our building had always been damp and wet,” Brennan told me. “It was an old stone foundation, dirt floor, right adjacent to the old Tiber Creek, which had been undergrounded at that point, so it was kind of a musty smell. In Ellicott City, there’s always been that connection to the earth, you know. We all knew it was a wet place, and you’d see the creeks would run high when it rained.”
After the 2016 flood, Brennan moved his practice to higher ground, but committed himself to the rebuilding effort as a member of the master plan community advisory group appointed by former County Executive Allan Kittleman. The group met for a year, during which most of the actual work that was happening on the ground was stabilizing existing infrastructure. In the spring of 2018, the community advisory group was helping to put the finishing touches on a draft of the master plan, talking with the consultants about details like marketing and graphics. One promotional image shows a man’s muscular calves in running shoes walking up a set of stone steps, with the phrase, “It’s obvious he shops in Old Ellicott City.”
“And then the flood happened,” Brennan said. “That just wiped everything out. Complete change of attitude. It became more about life safety…. It forced them to move into quicker-action mode, and they came up with the demolition plan, and that we’re not going to rebuild. People didn’t want to move back in, so we’ll buy your buildings, we’ll tear them down, we’ll create a big stormwater pond.”
Brennan had also been a member of the Ellicott City Partnership, a nonprofit business development group that is part of the Main Street Maryland network. But when the partnership sided with Howard County on the plan to tear down the 10 buildings on lower Main Street, Brennan resigned.
Main Street in Ellicott City is a National Historic District, encompassing more than 200 contributing buildings and Ellicott City Station, a National Historic Landmark. Because the county was seeking federal grants, the plan to demolish part of the district triggered Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which requires federal agencies to consider the historic value of areas that might be affected by their work.
“The structures themselves are of value individually,” said Nicholas Redding, the executive director of Preservation Maryland. “But really, when you’re talking about lower Main collectively, there’s value in the totality of it—in the district that they create. So by removing a big chunk of them, you lose the integrity and authenticity and feeling of that space.”
During the summer of 2018, as the county’s focus shifted from long-range planning to immediate flood mitigation, the master plan was pared down to a set of projects that could be implemented in five years, with the goal of improving stream conveyance as much as possible. At a public meeting in September, Mahan Rykiel presented sketches of the “Hudson Bend” portion of the plan—the open, vegetated channel through lot D on upper Main Street.
At the beginning of October, the Baltimore Sun reported that the County Council approved a bill to fund the acquisition and demolition of 19 buildings, including the 10 historic buildings on lower Main. But the vote wasn’t unanimous. Calvin Ball, a county councilman and a Democrat who was challenging Kittleman in the county executive’s race, was one of two council members to vote against the plan. Ball told me he had opposed the five-year plan because he thought it was rushed, that the process should have been more transparent, and because the funding for the projects wasn’t allocated in the typical budget process.
Ball went on to win the county executive’s election, and while the demolition plan had become a divisive issue in Ellicott City, it’s hard to know what role it played in the county election. (I heard a range of theories. Joan Becker, the president of Historic Ellicott City Inc., told me a Republican couldn’t have been elected dogcatcher in Howard County last year. Brennan suggested the demolition plan was the decisive factor in the outcome.)
Since taking office, Ball has launched a plan called Ellicott City Safe and Sound, which is focused on public safety and maintaining stream flows. The county is continuing to negotiate with building owners to acquire the buildings on lower Main, but Ball has at least temporarily put a stop to the idea of demolishing them, saying the county should do everything it can to protect the historic character of Ellicott City. He echoes a point made by many opponents of the five-year plan: Even with those 10 buildings removed to return some idea of a floodplain to the watershed, storms like those in 2016 and 2018 would still flood lower Main.
“The former plan left four to six feet of floodwater on Main Street and was $50 million,” Ball said. “And it would tear down at least 10 buildings on lower Main to have this riverwalk, which, frankly, if people are afraid of flooding, I’m not sure a riverwalk at the bottom of Main Street was going to be the best answer.”
Ball has also put the master planning process on hold, and as of February, he wasn’t ready to say when it might start again.
Around the country, heavy downpours are becoming heavier and more frequent, according to the National Climate Assessment, with the greatest increase occurring in the Northeast, the Midwest, and the Upper Great Plains. Climate change is expected to accelerate that trend and to make flooding more intense in many regions. Ellicott City itself is particularly ill-placed, the most vulnerable location for flash flooding in the 44 counties around Baltimore and Washington, according to the National Weather Service. Both the 2016 and 2018 storms are categorized as 1,000-year events, with just a 0.1 percent chance of occurring in a given year. But as the climate changes, those categories become less useful.
The 2016 storm dumped nearly 800 acre-feet of water on Ellicott City in the three hours between 7:00 and 10:00 p.m. To illustrate the storage capacity needed to hold that volume of water, Chris Brooks, the director of water resources for McCormick Taylor, told attendees at a public meeting last September to picture an 80-story tower planted on parking lot F, a roughly one-acre lot on upper Main. It would be substantially taller than any building in Baltimore, 12 miles east. All of the interventions recommended by McCormick Taylor were meant to maximize the amount of water retained upstream and conveyed through the stream channels.
Some residents have come out in support of a proposal to dig two giant tunnel bores on either side of Main Street, meant to capture overflow from the Hudson and Tiber Branches during floods and convey the water underground to the Patapsco. (A makeshift billboard in one front yard on Old Columbia Pike above Main Street says “Demolition No! Tunnel Yes!”) That solution would keep most of the water off Main Street, according to modeling done by McCormick Taylor. But it presents enormous engineering challenges, would take more than five years to complete, and could still leave the town at risk if it were to become clogged or otherwise fail during storm events.
“Ellicott City had two one-in-1,000-years storm events in a two-year period,” said Isaac Hametz, standing at the bottom of Main Street. “That is, statistically, bonkers. It doesn’t make sense statistically. But I think it is exactly what we’re going to see more and more of in the U.S., and I think the question becomes, how do we deal with places like this that are cute and quaint but don’t have the political or economic resources to do any of the heroic things that we talk about in places like Lower Manhattan or Los Angeles or San Francisco or Galveston or Washington, D.C.?”
After the 2016 flood, Angela Tersiguel, the co-owner of Tersiguel’s restaurant, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and spent 10 months in therapy. But during that period, she said, there was palpable excitement in Ellicott City. People felt like they had “beat this thing that people don’t normally beat.” Tersiguel served on the master plan community advisory group, and more recently, she was appointed to serve on a committee appointed by County Executive Ball to explore creating a community development corporation for the town. She said she now sees participating in town planning as part of her job, but alongside restarting her business, the work takes a toll.
“I’m tapped out,” she told me. “I literally have no energy left. I think sometimes about what would happen, or what will happen, when the third flood comes, and I know I don’t have the energy for it.”
Preservationists and others wonder about the benefit of ripping out a substantial portion of Ellicott City’s oldest built fabric if doing so would only reduce peak flooding by a few feet. At one public meeting, a resident asked the planning team what their target was for reducing flooding in Ellicott City—80 percent? Ninety? As a response to the question, the county’s answer seemed evasive, but it reflected the challenges of planning for a town that sits in the center of a floodplain: The target for every project, including the demolition proposal on lower Main, is maximizing the flood reduction to the extent that’s possible. Tersiguel says that demolition would be a major loss to the town. But trying to keep the buildings intact, possibly even occupied, she said, is “putting us over the ethical line.”
“For me, I just need somebody to be a leader and say, ‘Some really, really hard decisions are coming down the pike, but I’m the person that’s going to make them,’” Tersiguel said.
“That’s life. We make decisions. We sometimes don’t know the best long-term outcome of them. We’ve still got to make them.”
Editor’s Note: After this story went to press, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball held a meeting to announce the second phase of his Ellicott City Safe and Sound plan, laying out a range of options for flood mitigation in the historic town. As CityLab covered, the options came with price tags ranging from $63.5 million to $175 million. In early May, Ball announced that the county had selected a plan that involves demolishing four buildings and, unlike the previous plan, constructing a tunnel to carry water underground to the Patapsco River. Read more about the new plan here.
Jared Brey is a freelance reporter in Philadelphia. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.