Ellicott City and Flooding

I’m sick of having to post the same responses to people, so I’m going to compile a little FAQ. This blog will hopefully answer many questions, misconceptions, and straight up errors regarding Ellicott City and it’s two “Millenia Floods” within two years.


Ellicott City has Always Flooded – They Should Just Stop Building There

It’s true that Ellicott City, like many places along rivers, has always suffered from floods. With the Patapsco River at the base, and the Tiber River running through town (and under buildings), the city has experienced before.

Among the significant floods, there were three in the 19th century, ten in the 20th century, and now three in the past seven years. No less than seven floods since 1923 have risen 8-feet above street level, destroying structures.

The difference is the source: historically, Ellicott City flooded along the Patapsco River, not the Tiber.

Most of these are “overbank” flooding, meaning they rise from the lowest point of the ground, leaving the higher buildings and streets untouched. Even when there were strong winds from Hurricanes or Tropical Storms, the damage from water was usually reserved to basements or bottom locations; once it receded, rebuilding was more straightforward.

The 2016 and 2018 floods were flash floods pouring down the Tiber from above the town. Vast amounts of water flowed down through the entire city, tearing up buildings and infrastructure and sending heavy debris floating (and flying).

Think of the difference between your basement overflowing and flooding, with the water rising… versus a wave crashing into your houses front doors and windows, bearing cars and streetlights with it.


There Was No Way to Prevent This Flood – It’s a Natural Part of the Area

As pointed out, these recent floods aren’t like the many that happened throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Those were caused by a granite valley where two rivers (and tributaries) all converge.

The last two floods were not merely because of geology, hydrology, etc.; instead, there’s a human-made explanation.

Howard County, like most of the DC-Baltimore corridor, has been rife with overdevelopment. However, the past couple of decades have seen numerous points uphill from Main Street filled with buildings, possibly more than usual.

Developers have pushed houses, townhomes, apartments, etc. into the higher ground along the Tiber, between Ellicott Mills Road and Route 40. All this pavement and deforestation removes vital permeable ground for water run-off.

So, when a significant storm dumps a half-foot or more of rain within hours (or minutes), where does it run? It can’t flow into the soil, granite, foliage, etc. of the natural landscape, but instead pours down into the Tiber… a Tiber already filling with natural run-off.

This situation creates a compounding flow of water that builds and builds, as gravity takes it downward. Thus, you end up with a different sort of flood, a rampaging torrent through the whole town instead of a simple overflow along the banks.

All because previous county leadership (stretching back years or decades) prized developer money over ecological consequences.


They Promised to Fix this in 2016 – Their Work Didn’t Do Anything!

It’s true, County leadership promised that Ellicott City would rebuild, and they’d do everything in their power to prevent his from happening again. Committees were created, hearings were held, plans presented, and some construction occurred or was in the works.

The problem is that most of the critical fixes, that changed how the town was (rather than just shore up the same old structure)? The funds had only arrived earlier this year, and the plans were still in process.

In other words, the County was doing something, but they took too long. And the people of Main Street paid the price for their delays.

So, it’s difficult to say whether the changes would have worked. Maybe they would have, perhaps they wouldn’t.

But the bureaucracy took way too long even to implement anything.


<<INSERT HATE POLITICIAN HERE>> is Responsible – Vote Against Them!

As usual, we always like to blame whoever we’re already biased against.

If you’re a Democrat, you blame the Republican. If you’re a Republican, you blame the Democrat. If you’re neither, you blame both.

The truth is, they’re all likely to be at fault… and also equally as likely to have been able to do nothing.

You could blame Allan Kittleman, given this happened under his watch. He’s only been in office for four years, however, and the overdevelopment has been going on longer than that.

He can’t just go back and fix the damage that’s been done, nor can he cancel development that has already been approved by the County.

You could blame the County Council Members, many of them have been in charge for over a decade. Yet, they’re not the only ones involved in the process, and the people keep re-electing them.

To be honest, I’m not sure which politicians to blame. Until someone shows the flow of money from the developers into their coffers, they’re all likely to blame… and so are we.

Do your research, see who’s the most in the pocket of corporations or approved the most development, and vote accordingly.

But don’t assume “THOSE people” are at fault, because you might want to check your own side’s files.

Either way, educate yourself before you decide to spout off on something above. Learn about the history, geography, geology, hydrology, politics, etc. of Ellicott City.

You do no one any good shouting out the same misinformed nonsense and personal bias every time a disaster like this happens.

3 thoughts on “Ellicott City and Flooding

  1. I agree with pretty much everything you’ve written here, but I think it’s important to point out that the 1952 flood was the same sort of flood as the last two, coming from the top down. The photo you included in your story shows the results of this, with the many cars having been washed down the street toward the river. I’m sure all of the development has made the situation worse, but out of fairness we should recognize that the city was prone to these kinds of floods even before the levels of development we see you today.

    • Except, as noted, that top-down flash flood was caused by a Hurricane Able… something I did include in the article. It was also the only top-down flash flood to apparently occur in 180 years, and we didn’t see another top-down flash flood until 64 years later. Thus, my defense that despite the city being prone to overbank floods (and the occasional Hurricane), the current problem in 2016 and 2018 are a different issue beyond OEC’s standard flood problem.

  2. Pingback: Why We Rebuild – Ellicott City’s History of Floods – Musings on the World

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