Safe Human Settlement Policy Initiative

Safe Human Settlement Policy Initiative

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Wisdom of Many

A great article in the Baltimore Sun appeared shortly after the second major flood in as many years devastated the Maryland town of Ellicott City (see earlier posts).  The article included a few excellent quotes I wanted to highlight here:

The article described the engineering proposals made following the 2016 flood, saying that  

"about $35 million in immediate improvements were needed, including $13 million to build three large ponds to catch rainwater before it floods Main Street and sweeps away people, cars and businesses."  The engineers also "recommended a couple of options: drilling two tunnels, called bores, through the town’s hills at a cost of more than $60 million to redirect water away from downtown, or building 18 stormwater management projects that would cost about $85 million.... But most of the projects were still in the planning stage when tragedy struck again last Sunday."

Which brings me to the quotes:

“We had an emergency and it needed to be treated as such... I’m not an engineer. I can’t tell you how much they needed to spend. But they needed to do more than they did. They didn’t do much. They fixed a wall. That’s it.”

--Kara Brook Brown, property owner on Main Street

“When you deal with these issues, you can’t build them in a month.  You can’t build them in a year. It takes 10 years or more to get some of these things done. … Who would have ever imagined we’d have a worse flood two years later?”

--County Executive Alan Kittleman

“I’m here to try to do something to save the town I love, the town I grew up in. I don’t want to see a ghost town. All we can do is stop building, and find a way to redirect the water so the town doesn’t get ruined. It’s been here longer than any of this and it deserves to stay.”

--Life-long resident Dave Mullen, while holding a hand-written sign that says: “No New Development. U R Ruining History.”
"Officials owe Ellicott City some answers. That’s what government is there to do: Solve big problems that are not going to be solved by the market. The market has been a big contributor to this problem.”

--Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs

“Everybody thought the flood of 2016 was a freak storm and we all thought we had time.  Now, she says, it no longer appears to be a freak storm, but a combination of changing weather patterns and overdevelopment. We can’t fathom rebuilding. I cannot get up and ask people to throw more good money after bad.”

--Gretchen Shuey, owner of the Bean Hollow on Main Street, who plans to move her business to nearby Catonsville

“I recognize Ellicott City means a lot to the community.  But we human beings have irretrievably altered the natural world both in terms of climate change and the upstream development. Main Street is now a flood control channel. You have to ask yourself: Maybe we need to rethink what we’re doing with old town Ellicott City.

"Mother Nature is saying, ‘Can you hear me now?’ “Sometimes we think we can engineer our way out of problems. I can’t imagine a culvert big enough to handle the flows we saw Sunday. Very few cities have integrated climate change into their planning.  I worry there’s this false bravado and machismo that we’re going to bounce back. We reopened faster than we expected, and now look what’s happened. There needs to be a reality check. 

"To me it’s hubris to say, ‘We’re going to do what we’ve done before and rebuild and take our chances with Mother Nature.’”

--Tim Lattimer, a former acting director of the Office of Global Change in the federal Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science; and local county resident

Photo source (link)

Friday, June 1, 2018

What Happens Next?

A quick note to relay a sobering set of statistics related to my earlier posts about the increasing frequency of major flooding in Ellicott City, Maryland.  In many ways, this is indicative of the situation worldwide; and where, tragically, one life was lost in each of the two most recent EC floods, the repercussions of this upward trend in climate-related disasters have the potential to affect millions of human beings over the next decades.

Climate mitigation efforts won't resolve this problem in time to prevent further catastrophes. It's time to wake up to the serious need for adaptation efforts before it's too late.  Climate researcher Thea Dickinson @adapt2climate tweeted this excellent graphic. I'll let it speak for itself, other than to ask the question: What happens next?

In a commentary following the 2018 flood, "Preservation Maryland" posted an article that put the flooding in perspective and helped explain how the climate issues (affecting the last 100 years or so) are exacerbated now by the development problems around Ellicott City, threatening to increase the frequency and severity of these events exponentially.  They write:

"Unlike many of the previous floods, 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. The change has resulted in more ferocious, damaging and life-threatening floods. The change has also prompted a serious and ongoing conversation about how best to mitigate the impacts and make Ellicott City more resilient. It’s a conversation that must be resolved soon as storms intensify."

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

“You’d Be a Fool to Come Back”

It was less than two years ago.  A once-in-a-thousand-year flood (or so it was called) washed through the town of Ellicott City, MD and destroyed many of the quaint historic structures along Main Street.  It was shocking to see the extent of the damage and we were all saddened by the loss of life.  I wrote about it in this blog, here.

Just last week, one of the last shops along Main Street finally reopened to much fanfare, having survived the flood of 2016 to rebuild and rise again like a waterlogged Phoenix. The glory that is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the area (photo and source) had returned.  County and state officials had promised new plans and new solutions to protect the city from ever having to endure such extensive damage.

Then, this past Memorial Day weekend, as people were making plans for cookouts and family gatherings, a seemingly typical summer afternoon storm system rolled through central Maryland and dumped record amounts of rain.  Sadly, Ellicott City was once again the target of devastation.  Businesses and homes washed away and one person, a National Guard member helping rescue people in harm’s way, is missing in the deluge. To a person, everyone in Maryland who saw the news Sunday afternoon gasped and said out loud, “Oh no, not again!”

This time, officials estimate, the damage is more extensive; and the town, like a boxer who stood up after nearly being counted out, has been punched again even harder and is now lying motionless on the canvas.  Nobody knows what will happen next.  Business owners and residents in the area, I’m sure, feel defeated.  Even let down by those they trusted to protect them.

In a Facebook post following the 2016 flood, a local shop owner and resident of Ellicott City, Brian Kelm, wisely noted the following:

“For 200+ years the flooding in Ellicott City came from the rising of the Patapsco River and was mostly limited to lower Main Street. During major rain storms the water was absorbed into the ground in the surrounding woods north and west of town and the Tiber River, which runs east along Fredrick Road, was wide enough to handle the overflow that ran through town (rivers have the uncanny ability to be just as wide and deep as they need to be). In the past 20+ years developers and Howard County zoning board have banded together to pave over all of those woods with medium and high density housing…. When you pave over the natural terrain and add sewers and roads that lead directly to Main Street… you get a high speed roller coaster for the water to ride right through town. This ‘top down’ flooding has nothing to do with Mother Nature. This is a man-made disaster caused by greedy and/or uninformed people who decided that building homes above this wonderful city was worth the risk of destroying it.”

News reports indicate, that as recently as last week, petitions were being circulated among business owners and residents of the town asking officials to correct the runoff issues, rather than simply encourage rebuilding.   Bills were introduced in the County to prohibit new construction until the problem could be resolved, but none of that happened.  Nothing, it seemed, was really done to help other than provide financial incentives to bring the businesses back. 

One business owner contacted after Sunday’s second round of flooding by a local reporter was asked if she intended to rebuild. Again.  She is reported as saying that “without further mitigation efforts on behalf of the county, ‘you’d be a fool to come back.’”


One more excerpt from a FB Post by former Ellicott City resident and business owner Kara Brook Brown who survived the 2016 flood.  This one was written the evening following the 2018 flood (photo accompanied the post):
Hi everyone! I want to thank everyone who has been writing/texting me about Ellicott City. I am aware of what is going on. I have been silent on the subject because I have been in a law suit with my insurance company. I still own the two buildings in the center of town that I bought in the 1990's. It was the income that I earned from those buildings that allowed me to change my career. This Ellicott City situation broke my heart two years ago. So much of me went into these buildings. It was all of my energy and all of my bank account for almost 2 years. 

Within ONE MONTH of the flood, Howard County Zoning and Planning tried to put pressure on us to rebuild. My neighbor and friend John was so stressed by the financial pressures and the building inspector’s threats he fell to his death while trying to make heavy-duty repairs to his building (theater on the corner) on his own. He was close to 70 years old. I never understood the urgency of the rebuild. It made no sense. We hired engineers and geo-techs to conduct studies. Not just on what level of effort would be required make the repairs to the buildings which after one year of study came to $2 million for repairs, but on the exact cause of the damage to the buildings. I had a unique circumstance that I can’t yet get into. On very good advice, I did NOT renovate. I was told that flooding was going to happen again and again, until the county spent $10 million dollars to implement a plan that they had since before the first flood. They knew they had a problem before the problem happened. 

There isn’t one thing that caused this situation. It was a convergence of several issues from poor planning to overdevelopment to removal of forests that absorbed heavy rains at the top of Ellicott Mills Drive and replacing that forest with a community center and a densely populated apartment home community. The roads and road maintenance and maintenance of water-mains were also part of the issue. They handled a problem that required financial investment, grit and muscle and tough decision making with public relations campaigns. 

I was never a member of the club over there but now it’s time for the club to step up and accept responsibility for their bad decision-making and accept responsibility for the repair of the mess that they’ve created, not by offering low-interest loans, which I found insulting, but by funding and handling the repair. Being historic and on a waterway with severely damaged sub foundation and foundation makes redevelopment just about impossible. My hope is that the leadership will accept responsibility. There is so much that we should all find troubling about this mess. I have been told repeatedly that the city is exempt from liability. How can this be? They should be held accountable. I appreciate all of the support from each and every one of you. I just got word that another car just landed in the church foundation

RESOURCE UPDATE: FEMA and Hurricane Resilience

FEMA has issued additional guidance for rebuilding in the aftermath of last year's hurricanes that devastated Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean.  Please see the following:

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the United States Virgin Islands (USVI) caused severe flooding and high winds, resulting in damage to houses, critical facilities, schools, and other buildings. The advisories below provide information to assist with rebuilding decisions in the aftermath of the 2017 hurricanes as well as any future flooding or high wind events events. This guidance is intended for homeowners, designers, building owners and officials, architects, engineers, and contractors; however, can provide helpful information for other stakeholders as well.

As usual, these are excellent resources.  The link to the page is here:

Photo source (FEMA)

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Pele's Wrath

The island of Hawaiʻi, the largest of the chain that comprises our 50th state, is built from five separate shield volcanoes that erupted somewhat sequentially, one overlapping the other. [Wikipedia] 

The diagram (from another Wikipedia page) shows the United States Geological Survey hazard mapping for the island.  The lowest numbers correspond with the highest hazard levels.  The various volcanoes that comprise the island are shown below, listed below from oldest to youngest:

·       Kohala – dormant
·       Mauna Kea – dormant
·       Hualālai – active
·       Mauna Loa – active, partly within Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park
·       Kīlauea – active: has been erupting continuously since 1983; part of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park

Earlier this month, a strong earthquake on the island was followed by increased eruptive activity from Kilauea.  To-date, dozens of homes have been destroyed and Hawaii Civil Defense have reported 2,000 people evacuated from their homes, away from the path of the flowing lava.  Hollywood-like scenes of devastation have dominated the nightly news, including images of people fleeing the irresistible rivers of fiery lava while making their way through steaming cracks that opened in neighborhood lawns and roadways.   

Officials warn of explosive eruptions of steam that would lift stone projectiles and ash into the air, should the lava reach subterranean aquifers. They stress that nobody can predict how long nor how extensive the eruption will be.  For now, they move people as far as possible for the danger as possible, though the relentless earthquakes and the threats of ashfall and acid rain remain.

Mauna Loa, the largest exposed (e.g., above the ocean’s surface) volcano in both mass and volume, has historically been considered the largest volcano on Earth.  It dominates the profile of Hawaii’s “Big Island,” and, although it has erupted in the past, it has been decades since it last showed its awesome power.  In what amounts to a sort of “worst case scenario” in the latest series of events, some scientists fear the increased activity at Kilauea will “awaken the sleeping giant” Mauna Loa and trigger a larger eruption.  Obviously they’re not talking a Mt. St. Helens-like event (St. Helens is a composite volcano, noted for explosive eruptions), but the lava flows from the last (1984) eruption of Mauna Loa came within four miles of Hawai’i’s largest city, Hilo.

"When Pele comes, we just move because she has the right of way." Kaliko Baker
Volcanism was obviously a huge part of the culture of the ancient inhabitants of the Hawaiian islands.  They gave the name “Pele” to the goddess of fire, wind and lightning and credited her (accurately so) with creating the islands on which they lived.  Following the events of the last week, many residents of Hawaii are wondering if perhaps the increased activity at Kilauea is, perhaps, a response by Pele to something they did (or didn’t do).

Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, a 21st Century reporter provided the following background to a news story (also the source of the photo) about the latest eruptive activity. But he found that the people he spoke with take ancient legends very seriously.

Residents near the lava zone on Hawaii’s Big Island having been leaving Ti leaves and flowers in front of their homes and near the cracks on the ground as an offering to the fiery volcano goddess Pele in hopes she will spare them from destruction.

“Scientists and experts have tried to predict what’s going to happen but they’ve been wrong,” resident Shannon Malina told Fox News Tuesday. “We are in (Pele’s) hands now. She’s coming back.”  Malina, who has been living in a Red Cross shelter in Pahoa, was forced to evacuate her home four days ago because of a volcanic eruption spewing bubbling lava and swallowing up residential neighborhoods. She believes it’s the work of Pele, who is coming back to right the wrongs of humanity…

Several people on the island in recent days told Fox News they believe the volcanic instability rocking the Big Island is a warning from Pele…. Even as she wept over the destruction, resident Linda Jones told Fox News, “Madame Pele: I have love and respect.”

So just who is this all-powerful Pele? It depends on who you ask.

Pelehonuamea, or Pele as she is more commonly known, is the goddess of fire, lightning, wind and volcanos. Passionate and moody, legend has it that she lives at the summit on Kilauea. Depending on which version of the story is told, Pele spent her most of her life locked in fierce feuds with family members and was prone to epic jealous outbursts that usually ended with her burning down everything in her path... [Sounds just like what’s happening on Hawai’i now.]

“No one said Pele was nice,” Malina says with a little laugh. “But she’ll protect her children, I know she will.”

The news report includes the following statement from a University of Hawaii language professor named Kaliko Baker. 

“Pele the goddess and the Pele the lava are one in the same.  It’s important to know that Pele is as natural to us, Hawaiians, the aboriginals of this island, as the wind that blows, as the ocean that crashes on the shores, as the lava that flows out of the volcano. It’s our norm and when Pele comes we just move because she’s got the right of way.”

In the case of volcanoes and lava flows, this is exactly the appropriate course of action for any human society.  Impacts from storms and floods can be mitigated.  Earthquake damage can be fixed and sometimes minimized by better design. But when faced with a wall of 2,200 degree liquid rock cascading down a slope toward you, there is no other choice than to “get out of the way.”

The lesson for the residents of Hawaii—a lesson they have learned over centuries of experience living under the threat of volcanic activity—is that human settlements have no business impeding the wrath of Pele.  Planning tools like Lava Flow Hazard Zone maps and other locational restrictions try to limit the impact of volcanic activity on communities in the state, but as we’ve seen in the last week, it’s not perfect.   

Even so, having enough respect for nature—or Pele, if you choose—to inform and modify our activity is critical to human survival. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Resource Update 4/11/18

FEMA has published additional Recovery Advisories related to the rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico that are applicable to many other communities and regions. The hurricane/flood-proofing ideas are extremely useful tools for designers, contractors and other involved in constructing or reconstructing housing in damage-prone areas. The latest information can be found here.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Zero is a Good Number

As part of a late winter storm system (named “Toby”) that moved through the Southeast earlier this week, at least 13 tornadoes touched down in Alabama.  Buildings like the one in the photo in one community, Jacksonville AL, were seriously damaged and the repair estimates are in the tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars. In fact, at Jacksonville State University, where the devastation was severe, administrators have opted to close the campus for a number of weeks to clean up and rebuild.

Damage left in the wake of an EF-3 tornado in Jacksonville, AL, March 2018
 But a tweet sent out by the National Weather Service in Birmingham, AL, happily reported that there were miraculously no fatalities. The tweet continued with, “Sweeter words have never been spoken after a significant severe/tornado event. Thank You, Central AL, for staying weather aware & heeding warnings on Monday!”

Therein lies the real lesson for all of us, at least for this particular type of natural hazard: Heeding the warnings and taking shelter saves lives.  Obviously, safety is never guaranteed, but if those in harm’s way listen and get out of the way, their chances for survival are far greater.