(Note: Above photo was not taken during the Ellicott City flood.)
When planning to spend my birthday with my son, my thoughts were on what would be the perfect outing and what kind of cake would help me mark the happy occasion. Never did I expect that my special day would turn into a natural disaster. Nor did I imagine wondering if I’d survive—and whether the child I’d raised would be able to do the same. But that’s exactly what happened as my “celebration” hit its stride.
On Sunday, May 27th, my 30-year-old son Dan and I were in Ellicott City, MD. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the city was thrumming with visitors.
We were assured that the flood that happened two years ago here wouldn’t occur again for another 1,000 years.
Ellicott City was once a thriving, industrious town, thanks to the mills and dams built around the nearby Patapsco River. A lot of its charm today still derives from the city’s proximity to the river and the fact that so many of the buildings on Main Street are fashioned out of big chunky blocks of impervious gray-black granite. The region is very hilly, as is Main Street, which, in good weather, looks wonderfully quaint and turn-of-the-century.
Dan and I wandered into Main Street’s little Firehouse Museum. We wanted to see the original fire hoses and historical records, but we ended up talking to the guides about the unprecedented flood that destroyed Main Street two years ago. They called that one the “thousand-year flood” because raging waters of that magnitude were so rare. That notion—that such destruction wouldn’t happen again for another millennium—reassured us as we headed on down the street.
A Celebration Cut Short
We strolled into lovely art galleries, cute boutiques, and a yummy chocolate shop on our way to high tea at Tea on the Tiber, a charming Victorian-style establishment. Like me, several patrons were celebrating birthdays. At the top of the tiered tray of scrumptious-looking sweets and savories delivered to our table sat glistening pieces of chocolate cake, lit by a little birthday candle.
We were thoroughly enjoying ourselves when it started to rain.
It had been raining for almost 10 days straight, so the ground was pretty saturated, but on that Sunday an intense storm system just parked itself over Ellicott City and dropped somewhere between 10 and 13 inches of rain in a very short period of time.
Midway through our tea, my son looked out the window, saw the water rising and suggested we leave.
Though Ellicott City is bucolic, it’s surrounded by development, most of which has been built in the hills above and behind Main Street. Green space that would otherwise absorb rainfall has lost the battle to concrete. As it rained and rained, the downpour had nowhere to go but through subdivisions and onto Main Street. Nearby creeks that feed into the Patapsco and the Patapsco itself quickly breached their banks.
Midway through our tea, Dan looked out the window, saw the water rising, and suggested we leave and try to get to the lot where our cars were parked. But it was already too late. In about five minutes, the water raging down the street was two feet deep; 10 minutes later, it was 20 feet.
As the water roiled, it started launching vehicles, tearing down trees, and ripping apart storefronts. We watched SUVs float by, followed by refrigerators, massive trees stripped of their bark, awnings, and lampposts. A big truck and another car got wrenched vertically against a building kitty-corner from the spot where we were stranded. Water broke down store fronts, whooshed in, then whooshed out again, laden with ruined contents that would never be sold.
We heard the glass front door of the tearoom break, and then water started rushing in.
Flash Flood Survival: Heading for Higher Ground
The patrons who’d been on the building’s first floor had already joined the rest of us on the second. Initially, though stranded, we generally felt safe, thinking that this was a flash flood that would quickly pass. Then the glass windows in the kitchen in the back shattered. Now water was flooding into the house from all sides. Within minutes, the entire first floor of the tearoom was filled with churning water and debris from the street. Canisters of tea and teacups and saucers eerily floated on top.
As the water rose higher in the teahouse, it dawned on me that we were actually trapped. But my son Dan, who is a bodybuilder and former Eagle Scout, was one step ahead of me. He’d already started planning how we’d survive if we had to escape.
At that point, the water was only 12 inches below the second-floor window sill and rising steadily up the inside stairs.
He was quick-thinking, calm, and reassuring. He examined both sides of the building and calculated that going out the front window would be better than the back because water in front of the house was moving while the water in the back was getting dammed up by big trees, air conditioners, logs, trash cans, dumpsters, and all manner of cruddy debris that could kill us in a minute if we got hit in the head or worse. Jumping into the water anywhere would be dangerous, we reasoned, but better than drowning inside the house. We were hoping there were no live wires in the water.
Dan cleared a windowsill, then opened the window so we could make a quick exit if needed. At that point, the water was probably only 12 inches below the window sill of the second floor and rising steadily up the inside stairs. If it got high enough that it started coming in the windows, we’d go out. “It’ll be like white-water rafting, Mom,” he told me, harkening back to previous family adventures on the Cheat and Youghiogheny rivers. “Put your feet downstream and keep your head up.” Optimistic thinking, but at least we had a plan.
Meanwhile, there were 50 or so other customers and staff in the Tiber and many of them had crammed into the building’s small third floor. There was no way out from up there, so Dan and I stayed put, but some people just wanted to get as far away from the rising water as possible.
They tore all the curtains off the windows and made one of those ropes like you see in the movies. I guess they thought they would lower themselves out of the windows if they needed to, but Dan and I both agreed that was a bad idea. Too many of those folks were seniors (says this spry 66-year-old) and pretty feeble; some were too overweight. One anxious Japanese tourist was by herself. She would speak into a translator app on her phone, then the phone would play it back in English so she could ask a question. No one was hysterical, but Dan and I thought all hell would break loose if people started dangling outside on a rope made of lace curtains while the storm raged.
Someone then suggested we try and break through the ceiling to escape out the top of the roof. However, we couldn’t do much with butter knives and teaspoons, two utensils that may be fine for eating a scone but not that effective for puncturing ceiling plaster and shingles.
Watching, Waiting, Worrying
This all went on for close to two hours. At times, there was nothing we could do but watch the water rise and consider how we’d survive if we ended up in it.’A lot of these folks don’t look like they’ll survive if this room starts to flood,’ I told my son.
I found myself reflecting upon Noah’s Ark—and the Titanic—when I looked at the flood roaring by outside and saw that the water that was steadily approaching the landing of our second floor. I looked at Dan and said, “You know, we’re two of the fittest people here. A lot of these folks don’t look like they’ll survive if this room starts to flood. We may have to try to save some lives.
He looked directly back at me and simply replied, “They’re not my first responsibility. You are.”
I wanted to save everyone else. He wanted to save me. In that moment, I had faith that we both would be saved—and that my child had become the savvy, resilient, competent adult I’d worked so hard to raise.
Eventually the rain abated, and as it did, the flood levels started dropping. At some point, the water ebbed low enough at the back of the house that first responders could get to us. A team of four burly guys arrived, cleared a path through the debris and destruction, and one by one, ushered us outside, wasting no time. We could all smell gasoline, and they said another rain band resembling a monsoon was on its way. Hurry!
‘A lot of these folks don’t look like they’ll survive if this room starts to flood,’ I told my son.
As I left, I took a quick glance at the teahouse’s first floor. It had been utterly demolished. Walls had been ripped apart, leaving strips of drywall hanging garishly from their studs. Nothing—no furniture, no pictures, no books—was discernible amongst the chaotic pile of soaking wet rubble coated with layer upon layer of mud.
Tightly holding hands, Dan and I made our way to St. Paul’s Catholic Church on a high hill overlooking Main Street. Dan tried to walk over to the parking lot to see if our vehicles had survived, but the police said the entire area was under water and wouldn’t let him pass.
Making Sense of the Devastation
We later found out my son’s car was flooded beyond repair. The car I was driving was retrieved two days later from the river—a mangled, sandy mess of machinery that looked like a prop from Mad Max or Blade Runner. Thank God neither of us were in our vehicles when the flood hit.
Throughout the ordeal, while I was tense, I wasn’t terrified. But in the couple of days afterward, I felt sick to my stomach, especially when I looked at the pictures of our trashed autos and realized how lucky we’d been that we couldn’t get to them.
I read the news voraciously, looking for explanations as to what had happened. Local meteorologists confirmed what I, as an environmentalist, knew in my bones: that climate change was in part responsible for the scale of this disaster.
Local meteorologists confirmed that climate change was in part responsible for the scale of this disaster.
Storms, of course, happen all the time. But their intensity is increasing with every season. Hotter global surface temperatures are causing more water to evaporate from lakes, rivers, and oceans. That’s putting a lot more moisture into the atmosphere, which is why a common summer storm turns into a monsoon. Meanwhile, the jet stream, that broad band of air that normally swirls quickly around the globe in the upper atmosphere, has slowed down. The jet stream should move a storm on after it dumps its rain, but because it doesn’t move as fast as it used to, that drenching rain overstayed its welcome when it got to Ellicott City.
Like the guides at the firehouse said, floods this size are supposed to happen once every thousand years. Ellicott City has now had two in two years. I am sadly certain this will happen again.
That means I’ll have to work harder, because this experience has inspired me to use my newfound resilience to redouble efforts to reverse the practices that cause climate change in the first place.
As for my next birthday, I do plan on celebrating in a less dramatic way, along with the wonderful son for whom I have renewed respect. We deserve to finish our cake, don’t you think?
Diane MacEachern is an award-winning entrepreneur and prominent green expert who founded Big Green Purse to inspire women to use their consumer clout to protect the planet and themselves.