On the evening of July 30, 2016, the historic center of Ellicott City, Maryland, was devastated by one of the strongest floods in its 250-year history. In less than 90 minutes, a torrential storm dropped more than six inches of rain. In addition to being a humanitarian nightmare, the flood also presented dramatic challenges for preservationists concerned about the well-being of this National Register of Historic Places district’s historic resources.
Responding to a Disaster
Within hours of the flood, Preservation Maryland staff made the quick decision to get involved and help respond to the disaster. An online fundraising effort solicited donations, and a team of preservationists, including representatives of the state and nonprofit organizations, began surveying the damage, going down the street building by building. Nearly every building had been touched by the floodwaters, and many were dangerously exposed to the elements after large portions of their historic fabric had been torn away by the raging water.
Within just a few days, some voices began to suggest that several buildings were too far gone to be salvaged and were destined to meet the wrecking ball. Fortunately, preservation-friendly engineers engaged by Preservation Maryland helped refute these initial surveys and developed strategies to save the structures, preventing any demolition in the historic district.
Preservation Maryland worked to gain access for drone surveyors from Elevated Element and a laser scanning team from Direct Dimensions to document the damage, enable rebuilding, and assist with future planning efforts. These disaster surveys, taken just days after the flood, were accurate to, in many cases, within 2 millimeters. The drone footage helped donors, large and small, visualize the extent of the damage.
Preservation Maryland also quickly realized that its efforts would be in vain unless private property owners, who made up the majority of the district, received the information necessary to rebuild and recover. Historic property rehabilitation is complex and confusing under the best of circumstances, but after a disaster it becomes a tangled web of finances and regulations.
With the heat of the summer setting in, Preservation Maryland jumped in and opened a Preservation Resource Center in Ellicott City to support the recovery and provide valuable technical assistance with historic tax credits and historic district reviews. Over the course of nearly a year of service, the center and its staff of two provided technical assistance to the owners of nearly 80,000 square feet of historic properties in a town that is dominated by small-footprint Main Street businesses and shops. In addition, through a partnership with Historic Ellicott City, Inc., Preservation Maryland was able to help distribute $50,000 in direct aid grants to deserving preservation projects that are helping to revitalize the post-flood community.
Ultimately, the success in Ellicott City was the result of dynamic public-private partnership and the leadership of Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, who worked with the preservation community to save as much historic fabric as possible.
Not wanting to let this organization-altering experience slowly fade into memory, Preservation Maryland worked diligently to document its response. In August 2017 the organization published a 30-page report called, “Ellicott City After Action Report & Lessons Learned.”
The report, a review of Preservation Maryland’s involvement following the flood, looks into what was accomplished as well as what succeeded and what did not. It concludes with recommendations for organizations that are considering responding to a disaster like the Ellicott City flood. It also includes a brief section about actions that local governments can take both before and after a disaster to make their communities more resilient and to help save imperiled historic resources.
Responding to the Ellicott City flood changed Preservation Maryland in innumerable ways. It was one of the most dramatic and exceptional financial challenges that the organization has ever accepted, but taking that challenge on has strengthened Preservation Maryland and vastly expanded its network of friends and supporters.
More importantly, the experience provided an opportunity to reinforce the value of heritage to a community—even a community devastated by disaster. Preservation was no longer just about wood windows and brick patterns; instead, preservation and history became the bedrock on which to rebuild the community. Preservation Maryland is proud to have played a small role in that story and is quietly preparing for whenever and wherever the next disaster strikes.
Nicholas Redding is the executive director of Preservation Maryland and the host of PreserveCast, the organization’s weekly podcast.