How a proposal to manage flood risk almost destroyed a town

Ellicott City reminds us that risk management is about more than just mitigating physical threats

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. — After the small town of Ellicott City, Maryland, was hit by two flash floods in two years, resulting in three lost lives and millions of dollars in damages, county officials knew they had to prepare for the next one that was inevitable.

So, at the advice of engineers, they proposed a plan that inadvertently tore the town apart in a different way, reports NPR: They would buy out buildings along Main Street in order to tear them down and make room for future flood waters.

But for citizens like Gayle Killen, whose early-1800's home sits along this historic thoroughfare, there had to be a better way.

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

"Family and very dear friends will say, what are you doing here?" she continued. "Why are you still here? You know, especially if you know what's coming, why are you here? What's wrong with you? I tell them this place is worth sticking around and working for."

This commitment to preserving these historic structures, however, pit her against other citizens like Beth Woodruff, who had very different feelings about the town in the aftermath of the second flood.

When the county offered to buy her home, located just across the street from Killen's, she felt she had no choice but to accept.

"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."

But this decision unfortunately began a bitter feud between the two, with Killen feeling betrayed by Woodruff's giving up on the town and Woodruff feeling personally attacked for what to her was an indisputable choice.

"If you pretend that human lives are worth less than historic buildings," argued Woodruff, "you're a despicable person. And I don't have any bones about saying that. You're absolutely despicable."

For Ben Zaitchik, a hydrologist at John's Hopkins University, this dispute is anything but surprising.

The question of what you do to ... 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.

And luckily for the town's social fabric, county officials ultimately took heed. Rather than just the one plan, city residents were given the choice between five, all of which involved tearing down some structures.

But because the choice of which structures became a public debate, many more residents came on board.

As Hersher so eloquently editorialized at the end of her story, officials must "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."

The county announced the decision back in May: Over the next five years, they will build a tunnel, buy close to a dozen at-risk homes and businesses and tear down at least four, all at the cost of more than $100 million dollars.

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