Safe Human Settlement Policy Initiative

Safe Human Settlement Policy Initiative

Thursday, June 21, 2018

A Tale of Two Opinions (And Three Graphs)

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…"

OK, while the quote applies to natural disasters, I'm no Charles Dickens. I'll move on.  That said, the response to the following question has placed people clearly on two different sides of the issue of rebuilding after a natural disaster:

Here's the question by an author of a Washington Post article writing about the recent (May 2018) "repeat" flood in Ellicott City:

"Would you believe the same scene unfolded two years ago and two people died in that flood? And shopkeepers were still celebrating their one-year reopenings this month when the 1,000-year flood came again Sunday, 998 years early.  Same thing happened in 1868, but 43 people died. And it happened in 1901, 1917, 1938, 1942, 1972, 1975 and 2011.  And what happens every time? They rebuild.  Why?"

There's the question--my question!  Here are the two sides.

On one hand hand there are those who say:

"In the era of climate change, the “business-as-usual” approach for addressing flooding is no longer an option. Current federal policies create an unsustainable “flood, rebuild, repeat” situation for managing the nation’s flood risks. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, while extreme events, laid bare the holes in our nation’s ability to prepare for and adapt to a growing number of large-scale natural disasters. We are now seeing more severe storm events, rising sea levels, and more people moving to vulnerable coastal areas. The impacts and associated damage costs from floods will only continue to increase without reform. The Trump administration and Congress must pursue policies that make America safer and more resilient to flooding."

But that rarely happens.  We don't relocate. We rarely rebuild in a "different" (better) way.  Instead, on the other hand, some (as in this article) jump in to celebrate the resiliency of the community and its rebuilding efforts, saying:

"Some areas looked much like war zones during the flooding, with military convoys rumbling through the streets and helicopters whirring overhead. With around 19,000 soldiers present, this was the German army's largest ever humanitarian deployment within its own borders. The floods (of 2013 in Germany) left more than 12 billion ($15.6 billion) in damages in their wake... But the floods have left behind less tangible things as well -- the impressive work of those who came to help, the solidarity of those affected and their strength in not giving in to despair."

Regardless of the approach to post-disaster recovery that turns out to be correct, addressing these issues is becoming increasingly more important as the events that trigger the response likewise increase in frequency.

NOAA's web page includes a number of fascinating figures that depict this very fact.  NOAA plots the relative frequency and CPI-adjusted cost of natural disasters in the US since 1980, and the data are stunning.  Here are the three graphs I promised:

First, the combined frequency and cost of events over the years. 

NOAA then provides an interactive look at the largest disasters, highlighting in color the ones with the most significant impact.  Their recent occurrence tells the same story.

Finally, a graph depicting the CPI-adjusted cost of events over time, again with the same recent (and largest) events highlighted.

I've talked in these pages about the reasons for changing frequency of such events (e.g., climate change), but I also wonder if the dramatic increases in cost might be attributable, in part, to the increased density (and vulnerability?) of our built environment.

No matter the reasons, finding solutions to reducing physical vulnerability is, in my opinion, the single most important aspect of building our community resiliency in the face of overwhelming damage and destruction.  In other words, if we can find ways of creating physical communities that are less prone (either by location and/or design) to damage from these events, the increased frequency of the events becomes less important. And we can, as societies, turn our resilience efforts to restoring functionality and community spirit, rather than working and paying to rebuild homes and businesses.

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