Updated: Jan 21, 2019
Author: Sam Seliger
Photo courtesy of Baltimore Sun
On May 27, in the middle of an extended period of rain storms, historic Old Ellicott City in central Maryland was hit with major flooding. Videos on twitter taken by residents show waist-high water rushing down the narrow main street, dragging cars and debris with it. When the water finally receeded, the majority of downtown had been decimated. Cars were left misshapen, bent around street lamps, doors had been torn off and countless buildings had been wrecked by water and mud. Thousands of homes in and around Ellicott City lost power. One person was killed, and countless businesses were destroyed.
Unfortunately, this was not the first time for most residents and business owners. This devastating event followed only two years after a historically destructive flood in the summer of 2016 that left nearly every building on main street in utter ruins. Many businesses opted not to rebuild and simply left. For those that did choose to rebuild, it was a slow and expensive process. Walking through main street before the recent flood, the destruction of the previous one was still evident. Large retail spaces remained unfilled, and several buildings still bore marks of water damage. When old stores were replaced, it was by new and unfamiliar ones.
Living less than a mile from Ellicott City, and only a few minutes from old downtown, which has existed for hundreds of years and remains a center of the community, made the flooding personal. I was there only a month before the flood. Walking down main street, I was struck by how far the town still had to go in rebuilding, almost two years later. It was disappointing to hear how businesses had left and never been replaced. However, it was not all bad. Going down main street, I also felt a sense of hope. Storefronts were gradually filling in. A new store was opening its doors for the first time. The restaurants were bustling and full of people. It seemed that maybe the town would soon become the place I had been countless times as a child.
Now it seems that will not be so, at least in the next few years. The recent flood washed away all of that rebuilding. The historic courthouse used in the 1800s was completely destroyed. Pictures showed the Phoenix Emporium, a restaurant owned by a former athletic coach of my mine, which sits on some of the lowest ground in the city, had once again been ravaged. In 2016, patrons and staff had been forced to escape out of the second floor of the building because the flooding was so intense. While this flood was not quite as extreme, the building’s facade was entirely destroyed, and there was a massive hole in the side of it. It took a long time for the restaurant to rebuild, and the process had put a large financial strain on both the owners and the staff, who were out of work while the rebuilding took place. And now they will have to rebuild again.
Last year, the county government announced a comprehensive decade-long plan to rebuild and restructure downtown Ellicott City, making it more sustainable and less susceptible to dangerous floods. But those plans will now have to be put on hold as the government focuses on rebuilding the streets and buildings.
There may have been an even larger impact than the physical destruction. Although the community once again rallied together with its “EC Strong” campaign and is working to rebuild, many fear that this devastation will become commonplace. My family had discussions about whether it would be worthwhile for businesses to rebuild at all, if they will have to start over and rebuild again and again. These “1000 year storms” (as both of these were labeled) are projected to happen every two years. If each time the city rebuilds, and it fails to get back to the level it was at before, eventually there will be nothing left.
If we want to save Ellicott City and towns like it, something must be done. We must work to limit climate change in order to prevent some of its worst effects.