How A Proposal To Reduce Flood Risk In Ellicott City Nearly Destroyed The Community

Oct 9, 2019
Originally published on October 9, 2019 6:10 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to the small town in Maryland hit by two flash floods in two years. This is what it sounded like when residents called 911.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, my God.

UNIDENTIFIED 911 OPERATOR: Ma'am, what's going on?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We are at Bean Hollow in old Ellicott City on Frederick Road. The water is above the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We are currently underwater, and I have about 15 to 30 people in here, and we are trapped inside.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: There's people in the water.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Oh, my God.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Oh, my God. Get out.

CORNISH: Three people died in those floods. And when the water receded, it was clear the community couldn't survive another deluge, so they considered a drastic solution. Tearing down part of Main Street to save the rest nearly destroyed the town in a different way. NPR's Rebecca Hersher has more.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: The goal was to keep people safe during the next flash flood because it would happen again. And engineers said that tearing down buildings would help by making room for the water. But the idea that the people of Ellicott City, Md., would allow buildings to be demolished on their beloved historic Main Street was too much for some to bear. And for others, not tearing down those same buildings was unconscionable. And sometimes, those people were neighbors.

GAYLE KILLEN: Hey, Mary Sue (ph). What's up?

MARY SUE: What's up?

KILLEN: Not much.

HERSHER: Gayle Killen's house on Main Street is from the early 1800s.

KILLEN: When you walk through Ellicott City and when you discover what's inside of those buildings, you see where slaves were hidden on their path to freedom. You see a lot of things that connect you to our greater community.

HERSHER: Gayle is aware that the street is prone to flooding. Her house has personally flooded multiple times.

KILLEN: Family and very dear friends will say, what are you doing here? Why are you still here? You know, especially if you know what's coming, why are you here? What's wrong with you?

HERSHER: What do you tell them?

KILLEN: You know, I tell them this place is worth sticking around and working for.

HERSHER: But after the second deadly flash flood, some of her neighbors were ready to leave. Beth Woodruff lived across the street from Gayle. She and her son watched the second flood tear through the neighborhood. And the more she learned about what had caused the floods, the more worried she got.

BETH WOODRUFF: Like, the science is here. This can happen any year. It could happen multiple times in a year. These people are in real danger.

HERSHER: So when the county said it wanted to buy her house to make room for the water, Beth agreed to move.

WOODRUFF: I'm sad. I'm really sad, but I genuinely think that by taking my house down that the people who are upstream from me are going to be safer. You know, that's kind of the emotional reaction, right? And then the logical reaction is, all right, well, my son will need less therapy if we're not living on top of this river all the time.

HERSHER: But Beth's decision caused a rift with Gayle - Gayle, who would never move. Since the 2016 flood, Beth and Gayle had been friendly in the particularly close way that happens when you go through something traumatic with your neighbor. But after Beth agreed to move, Gayle posted a map of the neighborhood on her own window that she felt proved demolition was unnecessary and labeled houses slated for demolition, including Beth's.

WOODRUFF: And I think the implication was that I'm somehow a sellout.

HERSHER: Gayle says she wasn't attacking Beth. She was just arguing for a different plan.

KILLEN: There began to, like, form this idea that I was attacking her directly because she's on the list of demolitions.

HERSHER: To Beth, it felt personal. At one point, Gayle posted Beth's address in a Facebook group.

WOODRUFF: The way I see it, friends don't do that sort of thing to one another. Friends don't stab each other in the back or in the face. If you pretend that human lives are worth less than historic buildings, you're a despicable person. And I don't have any bones about saying that. You're absolutely despicable.

HERSHER: Versions of this happened all up and down Main Street. Front porch conversations went from mundane to conspiratorial. Everything was in upheaval. The social fabric of the place was fraying at the edges. And at its heart, it was about much more than the demolition plan.

BEN ZAITCHIK: Rebuilding decisions are not rational. And I don't think we should pretend they're rational.

HERSHER: Ben Zaitchik is a hydrologist at Johns Hopkins University. He's the kind of guy you might call if you wanted a really rational answer to a question about water. But he's seen a lot of towns deal with catastrophic flooding, and he says there are limits to what hydrologists can offer. He almost sounds like a therapist talking about it. He says think of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

ZAITCHIK: The question of what you do to - about New Orleans is not a rational engineering conversation. It's a conversation about what we want to be as a society, what a place means to us as a community locally and as a country. And so you need to come up with an answer that satisfies the engineering specs and also the human needs.

HERSHER: And the way to do that is for officials to make room for people to make suggestions, to not feel rushed or condescended to. Otherwise, distrust will flourish, and your town could die a social death even before the next storm wipes it out. It all takes time, and time passing helps the fear fade, the grief at what was lost subside.

In the year after the second flood, Ellicott City residents pressured the county government to do just that, and the government responded. Instead of one plan, they presented the townspeople with five options that could protect the town from floods, all of which involves demolishing some buildings.

UNIDENTIFIED GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL: So I know that there is a lot of controversy and that everybody agrees.

HERSHER: Hundreds of residents showed up at public events to ask questions...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Most of my question is about safety.

HERSHER: ...To make suggestions...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Have you all studied the economic impact to the existing businesses on Main Street?

HERSHER: ...To be heard.

In May, they announced their decision. Over the next five years or so, the county says it will build a tunnel, buy about a dozen homes and businesses and demolish at least four. It will cost more than $100 million. In June, trucks and cranes arrived on Main Street and started pulling debris out of the buildings.

Gayle is still fighting against the plan, and Gayle and Beth's friendship appears to be over. But in general, the town's social fabric is slowly repairing, and a lot of people are OK with the construction plan.

Sally, hey.

Even people who are also grieving the loss of what the town used to be before the floods - people like Sally Tennant. On a muggy day in August, I found her inside the shell of her old store, which was destroyed by water twice. She's sitting in a folding chair next to a massive hole in the floor. You can see the river running by beneath.

SALLY TENNANT: When I go into town now - I mean, it's hard to get over - I just, like, sometimes just shake my head like, really? Did this really happen here?

HERSHER: Sally is a strong person. You can see it in the way she's here, where she almost died, and the way she showed up to every public meeting for years to talk about what should be done and advocate for business owners who were losing their buildings. She's also incredibly thoughtful for someone who's just lost everything.

TENNANT: My opinion - I'm glad they're not tearing down 10 buildings at this point from a visual standpoint. However, the one thing that they can control is the man-made factors. So sometimes, I feel a sense of optimism, like they're going to fix it. And then the pessimistic side of me says, can they fix it? The odds of it flooding again are very, very high.

HERSHER: And that is what it looks like for Main Street to adapt to climate change. People may not be entirely happy with the plan, and a lot of people are still scared when it rains, but they're also cautiously, maybe even irrationally optimistic because their town has agreed to do something. And that means there's hope.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News, Ellicott City, Md.

CORNISH: And this story was produced by Ryan Kellman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.