Safe Human Settlement Policy Initiative

Safe Human Settlement Policy Initiative

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

“You'll see a lot of strange things from now on”

The title quote, of course, is by fictional angel Clarence Odbody from the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  In order to earn his wings, he’s tasked with helping a depressed George Baily see the value of his life.  To do so, he creates a world in which George was never born.  It’s an effective tool because the strange world George experiences is enough to force him to renounce his suicidal thoughts and eagerly embrace his family and his problems again.

Unfortunately, the strange new physical world that we’ve been told is upon us, but that some have ignored and others perhaps doubted they’d ever see, is beginning to display itself with sometimes violent and deadly regularity.  This is the take away from blogger “RobertScribbler” who reports on a “Once in a Thousand Years” storm that put 6 inches of rain (like a bullseye) right on top of the little mill town (now a popular dining and shopping district) of Ellicott City, Maryland last Saturday evening.  Blogger Andrew Freedman adds, “The climate that most of us grew up with is gone for good.”  



Asthis photo (above) from 1304photos.com depicts so well, words alone don’t seem to relay the sheer scope of the resulting destruction along the sloping streets, lined with historic buildings.  For those that have been there, even the photos fail to do it justice.  One reporter on the radio the day after the event, broadcasting live, said the damage was so complete and the devastation so gut wrenching, that you could see it, feel it, and “even taste it in the air.” 

People say they entered the restaurants along the street and the rain began to fall.  Just an hour or so later, a river of muddy water was running down the street.  The river turned to a torrential (100 mph by some estimates) wall of water 5 feet high, washing away cars, foundations, building facades, and even people.  The water raged downhill until it reached the swollen river and railroad bridge at the bottom, taking soil, stones, bricks, cars, contents of shops, etc., along with it.  Sadly, two perished in the deluge and when the water cleared, hundreds of cars were destroyed and an entire historic town was left wondering if it could ever be rebuilt. 

It remains to be seen whether or not civil engineered solutions are enough for Ellicott City. 

Promises of rebuilding the town began immediately, but I was surprised to learn that many don’t have insurance. Rather, it will be up to the government to step in and rebuild.  Knowing the town is prone to flooding and that it has been flooded (and rebuilt) many times in the past, made me wonder why we can’t learn from these events and do something better—even oversized—to protect the structures and lives there.

I was pleased to hear State and County leaders pledge to rebuild, and to do so with an eye toward improving the situation for the future.  Just last night County Executive Alan Kittleman “hosted a packed community meeting to share resources with residents who suffered damage. (Quote from article linked above.) He pledged to develop a master plan to prevent future flooding disasters.  ‘I don't think anything could have stopped this tragedy,’ he said, ‘but, as you know, we have flooding. Now, unfortunately, in some ways, it's an opportunity for us to make some changes.’"

A WBAL-TV news story included the following: 

"As bad as Saturday's flooding was, it's not without precedence as Ellicott City has a history of flooding. Some are now suggesting that history should be taken into account before rebuilding begins.  The history is so well known, that Howard County commissioned a study after the last round of flooding to figure out how to protect the historic town. But the question is, 'Is that even possible?'"

An opinion piece in the Baltimore Sun explained the problem well:

Last year, the United States experienced 176 deaths linked to floods, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That is more than twice the 30-year average of 82 and about four times the 38 flooding deaths recorded the year before. In all cases, the majority of deaths are related to flash floods like the one that swept through Maryland — they are sudden and unpredictable.

Climate change is causing more extreme weather events, not just flooding but droughts, heatwaves, landslides, cold snaps and more. As floods become more extreme and more common, it's vital that communities be prepared — not just in terms of reacting to emergencies but perhaps in preventing the worst of them as well.

The only way to truly avoid a flash flood is to be somewhere the water is not.   

Given a choice to stay away from low-lying areas or frequently flooding roadways is an option for some; but where an established historic and very popular town is involved, tough questions about location, responsibility and financial liability must be answered.  It remains to be seen whether or not civil engineered solutions are enough for Ellicott City. 

Sadly, it took a tragic event like this to get the conversation started.  But at least people are talking. And if we can work together on the long-term solutions with the same cooperative energy as is being applied to the clean-up and rebuilding, there is a bright (and dry) future ahead for Ellicott City.

For one of the most dramatic and poignant video images of the devastating flood that rushed through this poor town, please see this video from Don Young.  It's sobering to see it as it happened.