The devastation and disappointment in 2018 from the second “thousand year flood” in two years took its toll on residents and small business owners on Main Street in historic Ellicott City, Maryland, said Rep. John Sarbanes.
“When that second storm hit, in the wake of it, I think many of them were sort of hanging on by a thread,” Sarbanes told WTOP. “The resilience that you see in that community is really breathtaking.”
Ellicott City was founded in 1772 and became one of the largest mill towns in the eastern United States, partially because of the same attributes that puts it at high risk for flooding,
After centuries of flooding, “This is really momentous, moving forward now, beginning to actually get this fix in place.”
The “fix” is the most expensive, and potentially most important aspect of Howard County’s multipronged plan to reduce flooding — the Extended North Tunnel project.
Last month, County Executive Calvin Ball announced ground will be broken this summer in the massive underground project, which is expected to last three years.
On Jan. 18, Ball announced the project had received $68 million in new funding in the past year, without specifying the funding sources.
“I think the financing of this project is in a pretty sturdy place,” Sarbanes said. “It doesn’t mean every last cent has been identified, but the lion’s share of this funding is in place.”
Sarbanes said the financing “is anchored” by a $75 million Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act Loan that the county signed in 2022 with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to pay for the tunnel.
“EPA recognized that the kind of resilience work that is being done in Ellicott City can be a model for similar efforts around the country,” he said. “Obviously, we’re going to be more of these projects because of the climate change-affected weather events that we’re seeing.”
This year, Sarbanes submitted a $2 million community project funding request, to add to money on hand. “The budget is still quite up in the air in Washington, so we’ll see where everything lands, including requests of that kind,” he said.
What’s been done to minimize flooding on Main Street
Since the December 2018 inception of Howard County’s “Ellicott City Safe and Sound” plan, announced less than a month after Ball took office, the safety improvements have included installing high ground signage, and an outdoor tone alert system, to warn residents when a flood is imminent.
The emergency sirens sounded for the first time in June 2020. In July 2019, the National Weather Service and Howard County worked to designate “Historic Ellicott City,” located along the Patapsco River, separately from the remainder of Ellicott City, which measures 30 square miles.
In addition, the county has instituted a rigorous debris cleaning protocol of waterways in Ellicott City, and built retention ponds in other parts of Ellicott City, to intercept it before it runs downhill to Main Street.
In February, county crews began work on removing four buildings along lower Main Street. Before Ball took office, there had been a plan that would’ve called for the destruction of 10 buildings to widen the channel that carries water toward the Patapsco River during heavy rains.
With groundbreaking of the tunnel now within sight, Sarbanes said the residents and small business owners showed determination and patience, “with all the moving parts” of the multimillion-dollar project.
After the 2018 flooding, “They leaned in again, and said if there’s any way that we can fix this permanently, or as permanently as possible, given the uncertainty of the future,” said Sarbanes.
“When this tunnel is done, the congratulations for having gotten to the other side of it will go primarily to those small business owners and those residents who refused to give up.”