Devastation in Ellicott City, MD and the Importance of Disaster Planning

August 3rd, 2016 by Ben Yelin

On Saturday, July 30th, a torrential rainstorm caused widespread flooding in Ellicott City, Maryland, killing two, and causing devastating damage that will take months, or perhaps years, to repair. The storm dropped over six inches of rain in two hours in the historic downtown area, which is especially prone to flooding due to being a small valley surrounded by steep hillsides. The rain caused the nearby Patapsco river to surge up to six feet in an hour, and floodwaters consumed Main Street in the early evening, as residents and visitors took in a late evening meal at the many popular local restaurants. The storm provided haunting images that grabbed national headlines, such as a viral video of a group of people forming a human chain in order to help rescue someone from a vehicle that was being swept up by the floodwater.   A half dozen buildings were completely destroyed, and 20-30 others sustained major damage. At the request of County Executive Allan Kittleman, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan signed a Disaster Declaration, which allowed for the use of State resources to assist in the recovery effort.


Just hours after the flooding subsided, Howard County activated Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which has been coordinating the response for several days. Birch Barron, CHHS Senior Policy Analyst, served a shift as the EOC Manager on Monday morning, and CHHS Senior Policy Analyst Lisa Crow is lending her expertise to the Planning Unit during activation. Additionally, Senior Policy Analyst Joe Corona, who is currently assigned to the Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, is on loan from his regular client and pitching in at the Howard County EOC; regional partnership in action.

CHHS has worked closely with Howard County’s Office of Emergency Management on developing and sustaining all sorts of disaster planning and recovery plans. The effect of the planning effort was clearly evident in the EOC. By the end of the day Monday, the EOC was a well-oiled machine, full of eager State and County employees assisting OEM under the Incident Command Structure (ICS). By the end of the day, the EOC hosted a Senior Policy Group briefing, provided numerous Situation Reports (SitReps) to stakeholders, and helped organize a community meeting, at which citizens could ask questions of key State and County leaders. Over 500 residents showed up at the event to gain information about disaster assistance.

Drafting and maintaining emergency plans often requires tedious work and attention to detail. There is rarely an opportunity to see this grueling work come to fruition.  While planners always hold out hope that the plans will never be needed, an event like the Ellicott City flood reminds all of us that having policies and procedures in place is crucial in coordinating recovery and response, and to responding to the needs of frightened residents. There was very little indication on July 30th that a flood greater than the notorious one brought on by Hurricane Agnes was about to engulf this community. The National Weather Service had only issued a Flash Flood Warning an hour before the worst of the floodwater began to surge down Main Street. The only way to be truly ready for the unexpected is to do the planning leg work ahead of time.

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