Ellicott City’s Hometown Hero: A Story of Resilience in the Wake of Extreme Flash Flooding

Ellicott City, Maryland is a historic town of around 70,000 that was founded by four brothers in 1772 and is home to the Ellicott City Station – the oldest surviving train station in the United States. The landmark Ellicott City Station isn’t the only thing that Ellicott City is known for though. After enduring two historic “1-in-1,000-year” rain events in two years that garnered national headlines, the residents of Ellicott City are becoming known for their resilience, community, and dedication to preserving their home – in spite of all odds.

Ron Peters, the owner of an automobile repair shop and a landlord who rents several buildings in Ellicott City, is one of those residents determined to keep Ellicott City moving forward despite the natural disasters that have occurred in recent years. Ron has lived in Ellicott City for more than 35 years and has experienced many floods, but he realized that these events were becoming more frequent and intense than ever before and recognized the need for the community to have a better surveillance and warning system in place.

Ron, third from the left, was nominated to receive the Hometown Hero Award because he “took the time to make sure the needs of his tenants and their homes came first…if not for Ron’s generous heart, our entire family would have been homeless during this tragedy. During the remodel, he offered us another rental free of charge, so that we could use our money to replace our belongings and our car. Thanks to Ron, we didn’t lose our home, or our spirit and faith in humanity.”

Ron’s tenants told him that they decided when to evacuate their home by looking at a creek in their backyard to check if the water had risen to the point where moss grew on a rock. In a town that is prone to flooding (with 3 floods in the last 7 years), Ron knew their had to be a better way and installed his first three cameras used to monitor flood levels in the town. Over time, Ron has installed a network of 17 surveillance cameras. These cameras became extremely critical in May of 2018.

The National Weather Service (NWS) first highlighted the potential for flooding in a Hazardous Weather Outlook issued on Friday, May 25th. They warned of thunderstorms capable of producing locally heavy rain that could lead to isolated incidents of flooding over the next two days. Two days later, in the early morning hours of May 27th, NWS Baltimore/Washington issued a Flash Flood Watch for the Baltimore/Washington corridor from noon to 10:00 PM that Sunday afternoon. The meteorologists outlined the potential for repeated storms to cause localized heavy rainfall in short periods of time, along with the potential for frequent lightning.

Radar from 2:46 PM to 4:26 PM. The initial rain shown caused minor street flooding between 3:00 PM and 4:00 PM. The heavier rain toward the end of the loop sparked the more significant flooding which began around the time this loop ends. Note that at the end of the loop — 4:26 PM — a lull in the heavy rain is occurring in Ellicott City proper, with much of the rain area shifting south and east.  Video courtesy NOAA/NWS LWX.

A Flood Warning was issued at 3:19 PM for portions of Howard County, Baltimore County, and Baltimore County, including Ellicott City. This initial wave of rain began just as the flood warning was issued and then pushed south of Ellicott City after an estimated 1.5 to 2 inches of rain fell. However, the storm then built back over Ellicott City by 4:00 PM. At this point, Ron’s videos show that Main Street was still passable, but conditions continued to worsen in Ellicott City as the streams continued to rise and the Tiber river waters rushed over its banks. Main Street became unpassable around 4:20 PM.

Radar loop from 4:26 PM through 6:03 PM. The heavy rain to the south backbuilds over Ellicott City and persists for at least an hour, with a second round of heavy rainfall.  Across the river in Catonsville and Oella, the brief break in the rain observed over Howard County never occurs, with persistent torrential rain throughout. Video courtesy NOAA/NWS LWX.

By 4:20 PM, the water levels had risen high enough to overflow the capacity capabilities of the channel in the 8100 block of Main Street and near Tiber Alley, sending water both into nearby structures and down the Alley onto Main Street. The Flood Warning was changed to a Flash Flood Warning at 4:26 PM as reports of damage and flooding poured into the National Weather Service. Conditions continued to worsen in the city as water levels reached the top of the first floor buildings in the area between. As water levels reached their highest point around 4:40 PM, the National Weather Service, in coordination with the Howard County Emergency Management, issued a Flash Flood Emergency due to the catastrophic flooding and the fact that heaviest rainfall was still imminent. Before the next round of heavy precipitation began, water levels began to fall slightly.

Footage of Ron Peters’ network of surveillance cameras. The cameras are arranged geographically and by elevation as if one is standing on Main Street where it crosses the Patapsco River, looking west (uphill). Each camera is labeled and time stamped. The cameras pointing at streams and culverts come on screen first to show them swelling over their banks, with the flooding on Main Street starting at approximately 4:00 PM (44 minutes into the clip). This flood came in two waves, with waters first receding at approximately 5:15 PM (2:02:00 into the clip) and swelling again at 5:30 PM (2:15:00 into the clip).

A second round of heavy rainfall pushed across Ellicott City between 5:00 PM and 6:00 PM, with the heaviest rains falling between 5:20 and 5:50 PM. This second round of precipitation was almost as intense as the first round of precipitation, causing an even greater impact on the city. Rescue workers currently responding to calls placed during the earlier flash flooding were urged to seek higher ground immediately. Water levels continued rising across town, going over a deck near Court Street by 5:40 PM. At Tiber Alley, floodwaters once again rose to the top of the first floor buildings and remained there until around 6:10 PM. Similarly, water levels peaked at 5:53 PM on the Hudson Branch with a level almost equal to the 2016 flood.

Radar loop from 6:03 PM through 7:59 PM. Another round of heavy rain, which caused flash flooding near Sykesville (top left of image) moves southeastward and threatens Ellicott City and Catonsville for a third time. Fortunately, the intensity weakens as it moves into the affected areas, avoiding a potential third flood wave.

The second round of rainfall eventually shifted south by 6:00 PM. Just as everyone was beginning to breathe a sigh of relief, another line of storms that caused flash flooding in a town to northwest, began moving towards Ellicott City. Luckily, the intensity of the third line of storms weakened as it approached the town, and the citizens of Ellicott City were spared from a third round of intense rainfall. I can’t imagine how much more devastation might have occurred had that third line of storms not weakened before reaching the town.

In just a few hours, more than 6 inches of rain fell and the Patapsco River rose 17 feet, submerging the historic town in muddy waters. Many citizens called Ron after the storm was over to tell him that his cameras saved their lives. The Howard County Emergency Manager shared with Ron that they were using his surveillance cameras at the Emergency Operations Center to monitor the flooding in order to assess the situation and determine when emergency personnel could safely go out. Ron’s dedication to his community doesn’t end with the installation and maintenance of his surveillance cameras, though. He worked alongside his fellow citizens to clean up the aftermath and continues to fight every day to make Ellicott City a more resilient community.

Cleanup efforts in a small business in Ellicott City. Photo courtesy Ron Peters
Ellicott City citizens cleaning up after the floods. Photo courtesy Ron Peters.

The entire community worked together for months afterwards to clear the debris from the storm, and while talking with Ron recently, I could feel that their passion for saving their town has not waned. They have consulted with a hydrologists, meteorologists, environmental scientists, engineers, and city planners in order to determine how to rebuild Ellicott City to be as resilient to floods as possible. They are investigating Bio-Char – a process of grinding charcoal and spreading it across the land in order to absorb more water – for storm water management. They are mapping out their watershed, calling their politicians, and giving tours of the watershed so that the people who are making the executive decisions are informed.

In December 2018, Ron Peters and Lori Lilly (not pictured) invited newly elected politicians on a tour of the Ellicott City Watershed to show where blockages are. They also recorded the tour in order to get the best flood mitigation recommendations from master planners and engineers. Photo courtesy Ron Peters.

For a town that has gone through so much in such a short amount of time, the citizens of Ellicott City have my utmost admiration and respect for all of the time and effort that they are putting in to rebuilding their home in a way that will make it as resilient as possible. I hope that in the future, when people think of Ellicott City, they don’t think of the two catastrophic floods that demolished the same town twice in a two year span. Instead, I hope they hear Ellicott City and think of a town of hope, strength, and resilience. I hope that citizens across the country hear the success story of Ellicott City and realize that we can all make a difference in our community’s success and resilience.

We have been incredibly moved by this story of resilience and dedication to community, and we would love to do more profiles like this. If you know of an individual or community that you believe should be recognized, please reach out to us. Thank you.

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