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How Historic Ellicott City Plans to Survive the Next Flood

After catastrophic storms in 2016 and 2018, the Maryland mill town has five flood control plans. But it faces hard choices on how to avoid future disasters.
At least four buildings at the foot of Ellicott City's Main Street would be demolished to build a flood mitigation system.
At least four buildings at the foot of Ellicott City's Main Street would be demolished to build a flood mitigation system.David McFadden/AP

For the past year, the fate of Ellicott City, Maryland, has been trapped in limbo. Between 2011 and 2018, three separate floods have hammered the 247-year-old mill town outside Baltimore, first from Tropical Storm Lee and then via a lethal pair of “1,000-year storms” that sent water raging down the valley and through Main Street, killing two people in 2016 and one in 2018. The spectacular flooding, which was captured in videos shot by residents and widely shared on social media, caused tens of millions of dollars in damages and turned this sleepy pocket of suburban Howard County into an unlikely global symbol of the uncertainties and dangers that await in a warmer, wetter world.

The severity of the flooding was blamed not only on the growing intensity of climate-change-juiced rainfall events—the twin cloudbursts soaked the town in 6 and 8 inches of water within two hours in 2016 and 2018, respectively—but on housing development patterns that reshaped the area’s hydrology, increasing stormwater runoff and exacerbating the risk of catastrophic downstream inundation.