Water was beginning to come under the door of the Classics and Collectibles shop in historic Ellicott City, Md. Proprietor Joan Eve and her long-time friend Gary Weltner had just finished restocking after moving every bit of inventory out of the store and onto trucks the previous spring weekend in 2018. They didn’t want to take any chances after a forecast of heavy rains and flash floods that never came. “It took us the week to get it all back in and in place,” says Gary.
They had reason to be concerned. Nearly two years earlier Joan’s store was demolished when floodwaters pushed an SUV through the front of her shop and washed away the entire contents of Classics and Collectibles.
As rising water swirled around their ankles, Joan and Gary realized they had to get out. Six-foot glass display cases were falling like dominoes all around them as the back wall was breached and floodwater gushed in. The front door was the only way out. Unable to push it open, Gary had to smash the glass window in the door, step outside and reach back in for his friend as two cars floated by.
Back-to-back thunderstorms had dumped over eight inches of rain in just three hours that Memorial Day weekend in 2018. Overwhelmed streams sent several feet of dirty water racing down the quaint town’s main street, carrying cars, logs and all manner of debris. A National Guardsman died attempting to rescue a woman trapped by the floodwaters. This was the second thousand-year storm to hit the town in less than two years. A similar flood in June of 2016, also due to heavy rains, was the one that sent an SUV through the display window of Classics and Collectibles. Two people died in that event.
Ellicott City’s Concerned Citizen
It’s a clear day in late December and Ron Peters is making his way through a rock-lined channel toward an old tunnel under Main Street in Ellicott City. Wearing knee-high rubber boots, he carries a bright yellow oversized flashlight in one hand and a five-foot collapsible metal pole in the other. Stepping carefully but quickly over the rocky stream bed, he reaches a spot where several inches of standing water have pooled in the darkness of the tunnel. “This is the biggest choke point,” he says, waving his metal pole in a big circle. “This is what caused a number of stores to be flooded.”
Aiming his flashlight downward, he shoves the pole deep into the black water and layer of silt below. “Dredge this out down three, four, or five feet, even if they had to pour a new footer along here, a six-inch wide footer with steel,” he says. “It would keep Main Street from flooding so much.” Ron has clearly spent a lot of time down here thinking about this.
Peters is not an employee of Howard County, nor is he a contractor. He owns a body shop nearby. But to say he is a concerned citizen would be an understatement. On his own initiative and with his own money, Ron has made himself an important, if unofficial, part of Howard County’s flood response team. Besides his business, he also owns a number of rental properties in Ellicott City including the Howard House apartments, originally a hotel built in 1840. The four-story stone structure fronts Main Street and is backed by a steep granite hillside. A photography hobbyist, Ron decided in 2015 to install security cameras at Howard House. “I had six cameras. One inside, two in the backyard, three on the outside,” he says. “Just peace of mind, not thinking about floods.”
Instead of foiling intruders, the three cameras facing the street ended up capturing dramatic footage of the 2016 flood. Two hours of video from each camera provided more than just shots of floating cars and general mayhem. They provided a clearer picture of the sequence of events surrounding the catastrophic weather event. “That was when I realized that we weren’t seeing but a very little bit of the flood water coming down Main Street,” he says. “Most of it is coming under the streets, under the buildings, behind the buildings, and we weren’t seeing that at all.”
Ron Peters: "When the flood hit and I looked at my camera footage, I said there's no way we can stop this water. We need to open the channels up to get the water to the river."
A year after the flood Ron received a text message from one of his tenants saying the neighborhood was evacuating because of rising waters at a nearby creek. “I can’t keep having to get up and run down there,” he says. “I need to put a camera on the back of that house, my rental house.” With the help of a friend in the security camera business, he decided to create a network, connecting the cameras located at his rental properties with those already installed at his business. He then made the network available for free to the county government and anyone else who might be interested.
Standing on Main Street, Ron is pointing in every direction with arm outstretched and rattling off all of his current camera locations. “I installed four cameras up there, and then I put one right back here on Court Avenue. I got one on the back of this building,” he says. “I had to get permission from the historic commission, to mount a camera on the back of a building.” What he doesn’t volunteer, unless asked, is the fact that he paid for all of it himself.
His plan, as he originally envisioned it, would give residents and business owners access to the network and reimburse him the $2,000 setup cost, which would include a camera and recorder. Other than one restaurant owner, there wasn’t enough interest or money for people to participate. “I thought it was important, so I just went ahead and put the money upfront,” Ron says. “Some of them were still recovering from the floods. They didn’t have the money.” He paid his body shop employees and grandson to help with the installations and necessary maintenance. By May 2018, Ron had deployed 13 cameras.
Later that month, then-County Executive Allan Kittleman had scheduled an announcement about the imminent installation of stream sensors within the Ellicott City watershed. Ron was asked to speak at the event about his network of cameras and how he’d shared access with the county. “I got to thinking, I probably just wasted about $20,000 and 200 hours of my time because we’re never going to use these things. It’ll never flood again,” he says. “Six days later we get hit by the 2018 flood.”
Ron was in Virginia when his wife called the sunny afternoon of July 30. One of his tenants in Ellicott City was reporting water in the kitchen of a house she’d lived in for 50 years. “I said what happened, did a pipe break? She said no, it’s flooding.” Immediately he pulled up the video from his network of cameras on an iPad. “I got all the cameras and I’m watching Ellicott City get washed away. And I couldn’t believe it.”
He didn’t get back to town until late that night. On his way there he placed a call to Ryan Miller, the Howard County emergency manager at the time. “He’s not going to answer. He’s in the middle of this flood.” But Miller did pick up. “Ron, we’re using your cameras in rescue operations right now.”
Monitoring the cameras in Ron’s video network, the county’s emergency management team directed rescue operations in the ravaged town, moving personnel to where they were needed and pulling them back from dangerous areas as conditions changed minute to minute. “I thought it was kind of neat that we were able to that,” he says now.
Footage taken from Ron Peter's cameras during the flood of 2018.
A Long History of Rising Waters
The site of Ellicott City was chosen precisely for its proximity to the fast-moving Patapsco River, which provided power for needed mills. The first grist mill to be located along the banks of the river was built in 1766. It was destroyed two years later by a flood, rebuilt and sold in 1774 to Joseph Ellicott and his brothers John and Andrew, Quakers from Pennsylvania.
The end of the Revolutionary War brought increased prosperity to the area in general and the industrious Ellicotts in particular. Granite was in abundant supply and used in the construction of many of the new buildings. Jonathan and George Ellicott, sons of founder Andrew, built their own imposing homes of stone near the mills, located just 12 miles from Baltimore. The burgeoning town’s importance was cemented when it was chosen as the first terminus for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad outside of Baltimore. The stone station, built in 1830 and the oldest in America, still stands today and is used as a museum.
The old train depot anchors the historic district at the bottom end of Main Street, which is one mile long and rises gradually 140 feet up from the station. The street follows the narrow valley formed by the Tiber River, one of four tributaries that converge in Ellicott City before emptying into the Patapsco. The older buildings on one side of Main are built against a steep granite hillside. The bedrock is actually incorporated into some structures’ foundations and back walls.
Even though it lies at the bottom of Main Street, the old train station suffered little damage in the recent floods.
Over the years, the streams have been channeled through rock-lined ditches and concrete culverts that meander under Main Street and in some sections are directly adjacent to several structures. Many of the buildings on the lower end of the street actually straddle the stream. The history of Ellicott City is a history of harnessing the flow of water. But that has proven to be a difficult task.
Situated in a valley, flooding has always been a fact of life in Ellicott City. The Great Flood of 1868 is thought to be the worst of the town’s many flooding events when the Patapsco River rose 10 feet in five minutes, killing at least 40 people and washing away 28 homes, a flour mill and iron works. Floodwater has historically moved up Main Street from a swollen Patapsco. But water pouring into town from higher ground above is the more recent threat.
According to the National Climate Assessment of 2014, heavy downpours have been occurring with greater frequency since 1900, with the biggest increase in the Northeast and Midwest. Climate change is expected to accelerate that trend and to make flooding more intense in many regions. Given its geographic location, Ellicott City is particularly vulnerable.
After the flood of 2016, County Executive Kittleman proposed a $50 million, five-year plan that would have purchased and demolished 10 old buildings on one side of lower Main Street, replaced the structures with green space and expanded the Tiber River’s channel.
Kittleman’s plan enjoyed support from some quarters but not from historic preservationists who saw it as too drastic. “We spoke out against (the plan) out of concern for what that would mean to the historic district and the economic impact to a community that is so centrally focused around its heritage,” says Nick Redding of Preservation Maryland.
But before his plan could move forward, Kittleman was defeated by Councilman Calvin Ball who, upon taking office, asked for further review of flood mitigation options. In December 2018, Ball announced he had chosen one of the five proposals presented to him. “He didn’t pick the least expensive and he didn’t pick the most expensive,” says Mark DeLuca, deputy director of public works for the county. “But it gave the best results at lower Main Street.”
According to Ball, he selected a flood mitigation plan that would be a long-term solution and not just a band-aid until the next major weather event impacts the town. His plan calls for razing just four buildings, widening the Tiber channel and boring a 15-foot-diameter, 1,600-foot-long tunnel through the granite hillside that runs parallel to Main Street. The county recently acquired the last of the 10 buildings on the lower end of the street. Unlike the previous plan, six of them will be stabilized and restored.
Ball’s plan, like Kittleman’s before it, only expects to reduce flooding in Ellicott City, not end it.
“This plan will leave less than a foot of water on lower Main Street in the event of a 100-year storm as compared to the previous administration’s plan of four and a half feet of water,” Ball says. While not everyone in town applauds the new plan, which could end up costing as much as $140 million, those who see value in preserving the town’s history are more supportive. “They tried to come up with the most restrained plan that they could,” says preservationist Nick Redding, “and losing four structures is a whole lot better than losing a dozen or more.”
Long-time Ellicott City resident and retired urban planner Gary Maule sums up the situation: “There’s an engineering issue yes, but there’s also an environmental issue, there’s a historic issue, there’s urban design issues, social issues, the economic issues. I think we’re just moving into an age when people are beginning to become aware that there’s all these layers and it’s all connected.”
Hoping for a Break from the Past
On a sunny afternoon last summer, Sally Tennant is sitting inside what’s left of Discoveries, her antiques, crafts and collectibles store on Main Street, just below Classics and Collectibles. Her building is one of the four slated for demolition. With the front window boarded up, the only illumination comes from a single row of track lights high overhead. Slivers of sunlight are poking through the many cracks and gaps in the broken walls. The former store is nearly empty save for a number of wind chimes and baubles still dangling from a section of the ceiling. Sally can’t rescue the chimes though, since a six by twenty-foot section of the floor directly below was swept away with the store’s contents.
“I had so much inventory in here and all of it went down the river,” she says. It’s quiet except for the muffled sound of traffic outside and the soft trickle of water as the exposed Tiber River makes its way over scattered stones and chunks of cinder block six feet below.
Sally’s situation is different than her fellow shopkeepers since Discoveries was also her home. She owns the building, which once housed a grocery store and the living space upstairs. “This was a perfect piece of real estate for my retirement. When I’m done, I rent the store out, rent out two apartments, and I’m set,” she says. “I had set my life up perfectly.”
As of late December, Sally had sold her building to the county and relocated Discoveries a few blocks up Main St. She is busy now, still unpacking and arranging her colorful, eclectic merchandise. The smell of fresh white paint fills the brightly lit shop. Track lighting saved from the old store is affixed to the ceiling, sharing space with dozens of shiny glass ornaments. She expects to stay in Ellicott City. “I’ve been here for 38 years, and I draw a lot of people to town,” she says. “And they’re very loyal customers.”
Old Ellicott City was constructed over and around the four tributaries that feed into the Patapsco River.
Not everyone who had a business or home in Historic Ellicott City is coming back. But others are stepping in to take their place. Kelly Crowe opened the aptly named Unusual Company in a beautifully restored 1905 bank building this past fall. Besides the shelves and tables full of horror-themed masks, books, novelties and clothing, 18 flavors of gelato are served from a glass case within sight of the old vault. Just before the store’s grand opening, someone made off with one of the two stone gargoyles perched on either side of the store’s front door.
Hearing of the theft, Ron Peters has stopped in front of the soon-to-open store, fixated on the spot where the missing gargoyle once sat. “I’ve got a camera right up here,” he says, pointing skyward. “I’m going to try to see who picked them up. They haven’t even opened yet. And that’s a shame, you know?”
Ron had indeed captured the thief on camera making off with Kelly’s gargoyle, which has since been reunited with its twin, although they are now indoors. A few months ago, a woman was struck by a car on the sidewalk as she was painting a window on Main St. One of his cameras caught the sequence of events leading to the accident, including the running of a red light. He’s happy that his work has turned out to be a benefit in unexpected ways.
But he remains focused on flooding. These days Ron is testing a stream sensor he cobbled together from lengths of metal rod and sump pump parts. The makeshift device triggers a text message and photo of the location to his phone when stream levels get high.
Modest about his contribution, Ron is nevertheless always ready to talk about his video network. Clutching an iPad, he is rattling off the various camera locations as he points to each of several photos on the screen. “This is Georgia Grace’s camera. There’s the Patapsco River. This is Maryland Avenue. This is lower Main Street. This area really gets flooded bad. I had two cameras there, but I had to move them. They were on that building and that building belongs to the county now, There’s no power down there so I had to move them. These are my west end cameras, this…”
After a pause, he continues. “This building here was the one I cleaned out that my grandfather owned in (Hurricane) Agnes. The water was up above the first floor, it was 14 feet down there at the bridge,” he says. “I helped him clean out six of his properties after Agnes hit in ’72. I started coming down here when I was about five with my grandfather. This is where I grew up.”
The police have parked an illuminated message board at the bottom of Main St. to warn a wary population. “FLASH FLOOD WARNING” is spelled out in tiny lights. But Ron doesn’t put much faith in the mobile sign or even the siren that’s been installed nearby. He has, however, done some flood proofing to the 180-year-old Howard House apartments. “We’ve lucked out this year, he says. “We’ve had probably five or six storms within 25 miles that if they’d hit here, we would have been flooded again.”
Three of four buildings on lower Main Street, purchased by the county and slated for demolition.