After two devastating floods, questions that need answers

 

Whatever else happens during his tenure as Howard County Executive, Allan Kittleman may be most remembered for holding office when large portions of Historic Ellicott City were twice destroyed by raging flood waters.  Although he was Chief Executive at the time of the two floods, the blame certainly does not fall on him alone. There are many factors that contributed to the horrific damage and lots of responsibility to share over many years.

Kittleman does, however, face a particularly disturbing question that is his alone to answer: After the 2016 flood, did he do everything possible to prevent a repetition of the disaster?  He has been quoted as saying that the County had completed about one-third of the storm water remediation work from 2016 at the time that the latest downpour hit the system.  Kittleman also noted that two years is not a very long time in terms of major projects of this magnitude.

In political terms, which is the way we hold elected officials accountable for their actions and inactions, these judgments are not his to make.  I don’t know the answer to the question that I just posed, but I do know that it’s critical that it be asked and answered.  Absent a thorough and objective assessment, it’s going to be impossible to persuade people to invest their time, energy and money to rebuild Ellicott City.  And more broadly, trust in local government is going to be at jeopardy until there are answers.

Even before anyone looks closely at the response to the 2016 flood, Kittleman has to deal with a major issue of political optics.  As a candidate and as County Executive, he was one of many Republicans, including Governor Larry Hogan, who led the charge against a state-mandated storm water remediation fee.  Kittleman and Hogan ginned up opposition by referring to the fee as a “rain tax”, a bit of gleeful demagoguery that is going to be hard to explain away in the contemporary environment.

An honest look at the flooding would get rid of phrases like “natural disaster” or “1000 year flood.”  While it is true that Ellicott City has long been flood prone, it was always the result of waters  rising from the bottom of Main Street.  The 2016 and 2018 disasters all saw waters racing down Main Street and overwhelming the existing storm water infrastructure.

What was different these two times?  Republicans refuse to acknowledge climate change so let’s give them a temporary pass on that issue and focus on other factors.  It is clear, for example, that years of development that failed to take adequate account of the dramatic increase in impervious surface–that is, covering water absorbing ground with paved and built areas–contributed to the two floods.  Responsibility for decades of those decisions  certainly should be widely shared.

When the 2016 epic flood hit, it should have been clear that it would be less than 1000 years till the next big one.  One piece of the response should have been to prohibit any new development that would worsen the problem.  Was greater attention paid to development approvals after 2016?  Another question that needs to be answered.

Beyond that, however, the harder question is what was done to remediate a clearly continuing risk.   Smarter people than I can articulate options, whether a much larger storm drain coming down Main Street or storm water ponds to reduce the rush of water to the pipes or something else.   Would this flood have been prevented if the County had already finished the other two-thirds of the projects that Kittleman referenced?  And was there an adequate sense of urgency about the timetable for the work?

Some have questioned whether it even makes sense to rebuild where Historic Ellicott City sits today.  Given that  a significant portion of the root causes of the flooding seem to be man-made, we have to ask what can be done to make it an environment that is not so much at risk to flooding.

The response to the 2018 flood is going to require real leadership, not photo ops or press conferences.  Some have contended it’s too early to talk about such issues, but it’s hard to imagine a better time to talk about them.  A plan that creates long-term stability in Ellicott City may take longer to develop and implement and will surely cost more than some would like, but the costs of not taking that approach should be readily apparent to all.

The losses–financial, emotional, time and effort–of so many people who had worked so hard to rebuild Ellicott City are absolutely heart-breaking.  Public officials must be honest about the response to the 2016 flood and  make sure they get it right this time. They will have to be candid about costs and uncertainties and provide major financial support through the process.

Will Howard County leaders be up to the challenge?