Overdevelopment and Climate Change Collide in Catastrophic Flood

By: Dharna Noor | May 29, 2018

Recovery workers found Eddison “Eddie” Herman’s body in the Patapsco River on Tuesday afternoon. The 39 year-old national guardsman died after saving Kate Bowman from a flood in Ellicott City over Memorial Day weekend.

“I can only hope I would have done the same thing,” said Max Robinson, an Ellicott City resident and friend of Bowman who was also caught in the flood.

Even if he wasn’t sure that he would have acted as heroically, he knew he could have met the same fate just trying to move his car.

When Robinson left his apartment on Ellicott City’s Main Street, the murky, brown rainwater was up to his ankles. He stopped to talk to his neighbor and then to help a vision-impaired man to his apartment. Despite the water rushing around his legs, he held umbrella over his head. Within minutes, the water was up to his waist.

He says a police officer came by to tell him to get out of the street. But even the officer started freaking out.

“He’s like, follow me. And then he books it,” Robinson said.

“Meanwhile, I’m like, shit, I’m gonna die out here.”

Robinson, now alone in two to three feet of rushing water, started banging on doors to find shelter, umbrella still in hand. He found an unlocked apartment building next to a soap store, Sweet Suds. He climbed the stairs to the second floor and found an apartment with a glass door. From the door, he saw the rain collecting.

“The water just started to pool at the bottom of the staircase,” he said.

Robinson is a freelance journalist and local Recreation and Parks employee who grew up in Columbia, not far from Ellicott City. He recently moved from New York to the apartment over his mom and sister’s Main Street store, a gourmet kitchen-goods shop called the Park Ridge Trading Company. Though he’s familiar with the town’s vulnerability to rain storms, he said no one expected this past weekend’s floods.

“It was just a quick burst of panic,” he said.

The Ellicott City floods grabbed national attention, and Governor Larry Hogan declared a statewide state of emergency. 8.4 inches of rain accumulated in the town over a three hour period, but on Main Street, the water rose much higher. “It had to have been up to my waist. I’m six feet tall,” Robinson said.

This comes just two years after deadly floods in 2016 which killed two people and created $22 million of dollars of damage—floods that many residents and business-owners are still recovering from.

Just over two weeks ago, Hogan announced that Howard County would receive $1 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to fund storm drainage projects and reduce the dangers of flooding.

“It took them two years to get a million dollars from FEMA…that is not even a sneeze,” says Kara Brook Brown, who ran a technology firm out of the two buildings she owns on Main Street.

Studies show that Ellicott City is particularly vulnerable to flooding because it is at the bottom of a hill near streams that feed into the Patapsco River. This has been true since it was first built in the 1700s. But the impact is made worse by development, because with development comes blacktop and concrete: surfaces impervious to rain.

“We all like to expand. We all like to grow. We all like to make more money,” said Brown. “In the case of the county, you’re increasing your tax bases, you’re increasing your customer base, you’re increasing your voters, you’re increasing—there’s all that positive side. That’s the upside.”

But the downside, she says, is the inability of new structures—like the new condos and houses on top of the hill in the town—to absorb water.

Preservation Maryland found that unlike many storms throughout the town’s history, “both the 2016 and 2018 floods have descended from the top of Ellicott City and raced downward—not inundating the city from below, but instead cascading down through the city from the top.” Development on top of the hill replaced soil and trees that could soak up rain.

“So the water has nowhere else to go but down,” said Robinson.

Main Street, where Robinson found refuge in a stranger’s apartment, is at the bottom of the hill. After two hours of waiting and watching rain pool higher and higher, he was rescued by an emergency response team.

Robinson says his apartment will be fine eventually. But other properties likely won’t survive the damage.

“I mean, people are still paying off loans from the last flood and unless there’s some kind forgiveness on that, it’s just not—it can’t be feasible for all people,” Robinson said. “I think the reality is a lot of people can’t afford to come back unless something dramatic changes.”

When the floods hit in 2016, some business-owners, like Brown, were unable to get any money back from insurance companies. Brown is filing a lawsuit against hers.

But for her, it is not just a monetary loss for the town, it is existential.

“There’s no reason to rebuild,” Brown said. She thinks that reconstruction invites disasters of this kind to happen again and again.

“There’s a real problem in that there’s been overdevelopment, and until the county and Public Works and Planning and Zoning and all of them fix it, there’s no purpose to going back in there and doing anything,” she said. “And the only other alternative is to condemn the whole city and knock it all down and rebuild it in a way that has stormwater management.”

But though she’s trying to rally people against rebuilding the town, she isn’t doing so happily.

“It really was a wonderful place to have a business,” she said, her voice filled with the indignation of someone witnessing the collapse of a world that could have been saved.

To mitigate disasters like these floods, activists and scientists have called for new stormwater infrastructure. Until three years ago, Maryland required that the state’s 10 largest counties impose a fee on real estate owners for stormwater cleanup. The fee aimed to counteract the issues created by paved surfaces, issues not only with flooding, but also with water pollution. But in 2015, Governor Hogan unveiled legislation to abolish the tax, acting on a promise he’d centered in his 2014 campaign.

Hogan and many other officials mocked the policy prioritizing the desires of developers rather than the well-being of their constituents. Some were energized by the repeal of the so-called “rain tax.” But the lack of funding the infrastructure severely impacts areas prone to flooding—not only towns like Ellicott City, but also the less-white, less-wealthy neighborhoods of Southwest Baltimore, which also experienced floods this past weekend.

And as climate change causes more extreme weather disasters, the problem is becoming ever more urgent. But officials still fail to address the underlying root causes of the problem, rushing from one disaster to the next.

Neither Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman nor Hogan have mentioned climate change when speaking about the floods. But climate scientists have found that global warming has created a statistically significant increase in severe rainstorms.

“I’m not a climatologist, I’m not an engineer, my goal is to make sure people get the resources they need,” said Kittleman when the Real News Network asked him about the effects of climate change after a press conference on Monday.

“I think there’s a lot of there’s a willingness to kind of sweep this under the rug when it’s politically convenient and maybe listen to what developers want over what residents want,” Robinson said.

Brown says that politicians should have to pay for the hardship Ellicott City residents endure. “Fine them,” she said. “Then if that doesn’t work, take all the pensions from all the people who work in the government and put that in the fund.”

Robinson says he doesn’t know how to solve the problems of flooding in his town, but he does know that something needs to change.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” he said, “It’s just heartbreaking to watch my friends and neighbors and my family have to get through this again.”

Featured Image: Max Robinson

Related Bios