Ellicott City residents still live on high alert when storms hit

Every time it rains, residents and business owners in Ellicott City, Maryland, start going through mental checklists of what they need to do in case severe flooding forces them to evacuate.

It’s not an academic exercise; the historic city saw catastrophic flooding in 2016 and again in 2018.

Ahead of Wednesday’s storms, John Shoemaker, who is both a resident and a business owner, already put out the sandbags and cleared out the most valuable items in his shop. His family owns Shoemaker Country, an antiques and custom furniture store.

During the floods in 2016 and 2018, 6 feet of water came into his house and business.

Howard County has been working on flood mitigation plans since the first flood in 2016, but county Council member Liz Walsh said “that’s a piece of paper,” and her impatience with plans to develop physical projects to alleviate flooding — including a tunnel to channel floodwaters away from homes and businesses — is palpable when she speaks.

This culvert in Ellicott City is seen from the back deck of John Shoemaker’s home. The family keeps a close eye on the flow when storms hit — and keeps bags packed in case they need to evacuate.

“Four years later from the 2016 flood and we have very little to show for it in terms of flood-works, in terms of damage mitigation,” Walsh said.

Mark DeLuca, deputy director for public works with Howard County, said, “I respect her opinions, and I can understand her frustration, because capital projects, they do take a while” to go from planning to construction.

But DeLuca said there has been progress: There have been stopgap measures, such as cleaning out the culverts that run through the city and an aggressive program to remove any debris that would exacerbate flooding.

“You certainly can’t discount that,” he said.

There’s also an alarm system that has been put in place to alert people on what to do and where to go when there’s a flood warning.

Though they’re short-term measures, DeLuca said they are part of an ongoing strategy to increase public safety.

In the long term, there’s a $140 million plan to mitigate flooding that DeLuca said has to go through approval by regulatory agencies. Permitting is being done through the Maryland Department of the Environment and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

County Executive Calvin Ball said he’s hopeful the full “Safe and Sound” flood mitigation plan can be carried out by 2025, and an update on where things stand with the project planning is set for Aug. 27.

Walsh said she understands that some of the work on reducing floods is dependent on those outside agencies, but on the flip side, she argued there were things within the county’s control that weren’t being done, including limiting development in areas that she said contribute to runoff that could affect historic Ellicott City.

In the meantime, she said, she keeps a close eye on the culvert that runs behind homes that line Main Street. A recent rain of just one-third of an inch “turned it into a river,” she said.

And Shoemaker, who spent Wednesday making sure his wife and 3-year-old were out of harm’s way, was asked, with the constant risk of flooding, why stay?

“You know, people ask about that and I tell them Ellicott City’s a great place to live 364 days out of the year. It’s that just that one day that kind of ruins it for the rest,” he said with a laugh.

Turning serious, he said one day, he’ll likely move to higher ground, but doesn’t want to leave Ellicott City.

“It’s such a great community, and the town’s been good to us. We love being here,” Shoemaker said.

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