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How Climate Change And Flash Flooding Is Affecting Communities Across The Country


Now a story about what happens when climate change hits Main Street. NPR's Rebecca Hersher has spent the last year visiting a small community in Maryland that's facing an existential threat from flash floods. It's called Ellicott City, and she has watched as the people who live and work on the town's main street have struggled to save the place they love before it's too late.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: No matter which way you come when you drive into old Ellicott City in Maryland, you have to go down a long, long hill with rivers on all sides. And when you get to the bottom, the rivers converge around Main Street, and then they dip down and go under the buildings. The original buildings down here were mills. Now there's about half a mile of restaurants and boutiques that are much more charming because you can hear the water as you window-shop. It's a small place, the kind of neighborhood where most interactions happen face-to-face and neighbors tend to be friends. Like, for the last 30-something years, the best way to catch up with Sally Tennant was to just walk into her store Discoveries, which I've done a lot in the last year.

We're back.


HERSHER: How are you doing?


HERSHER: If you talk to Sally for more than, like, five minutes, she'll tell you what I now think of as the motto of historic Ellicott City.

TENNANT: It's one of the best cities in the state of Maryland, a great destination for people all over the nation.

HERSHER: Ellicott City feels special to the people who live there, which is why what's happening there is so scary. Ellicott City is getting extreme rain.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Just incredible amounts of rain in the Ellicott City area...

RACHEL SMITH: I think the rain started around 6.

HERSHER: In July 2016, Rachel Smith had just graduated from high school, and she was working at a coffee shop on Main Street called Bean Hollow.

SMITH: So it started raining, and - no big deal. And then we see the water going down the street start to get a little bit higher until it's up to the curb of the sidewalk.



UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR #1: Ma'am, what's going on?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We are at Bean Hollow in old Ellicott City on Frederick Road. The water is above the door. It's coming in the building. We need somebody to come in.

UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR #1: What's your address?

HERSHER: It happened fast - like, 15 minutes - for Main Street to go from wet to a raging river.


UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR #2: Howard County 911.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes. Hi. This is the Phoenix Emporium.


UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR #1: We are currently underwater, and I have about 15 to 30 people in here, and we are trapped inside.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There's people in the water.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Oh, my God. Get out.

SMITH: I remember telling the 911 operator that the floor was buckling...


SMITH: It's buckling.

...And that we didn't have a place to go.


UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR #1: What's going on?

SMITH: We were afraid the place we were going to go was down.


SMITH: (Screaming).

We just didn't know what to do.


UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR #1: What's happening, ma'am?

HERSHER: Finally, they found a set of stairs and a closet in the back and were able to get out, but the coffee shop and dozens of other businesses were gutted. And when the water went down, the police found out that two people who had been driving when the flood started had been swept away. Their bodies were found the next day more than two miles downstream.

ANGIE TERSIGUEL: It was horrifying.

HERSHER: Angie Tersiguel and her husband own a restaurant on Main Street. The kitchen was in shambles - every chair in the dining room, the carpet, the entire wine cellar.

TERSIGUEL: I look back on that time, and I think, God, we were really tested - like, really tested.

HERSHER: It was kind of hard to even comprehend what had happened - 8 feet of white water in the street. For the next few weeks, to get to her building, Angie had to walk by a cute little bridge stuffed underneath with cars and gutters and dumpsters. But there was also a clarity after the flood. The storm had been an act of God, a crazy thing, a thousand-year flood. It wouldn't happen again. So everyone - business owners, residents, even the governor of Maryland - seemed focused on the same thing - getting back to normal as quickly as possible.


ALLAN KITTLEMAN: It's been 13 days since the devastating flood.

HERSHER: Allan Kittleman was the county executive at the time, the closest thing the town has to a mayor.


KITTLEMAN: Ellicott City will be rebuilt, Ellicott City will be reopened, and Main Street will continue to be a vibrant town for many, many decades to come. OK.

HERSHER: And it worked.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: A major announcement for downtown Ellicott City 10 weeks after the devastating floods killed two people and washed away homes and businesses - tomorrow Main Street will be open for business.

TERSIGUEL: There was a very short period of time that I could look back and think, like, wow. We did that. Like, we persevered. And I don't feel that way anymore (laughter).




UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Torrential rain sent water rushing into Ellicott City yesterday for the second time in less than two years.

UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR #3: Howard County 911. What's the location of your emergency?

HERSHER: Newly repaired windows were smashed; newly repaved sidewalks, washed away.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: God, this is worse than the last one.

HERSHER: National Guardsman Eddison Hermond was hanging out at a bar on Main Street when he saw a woman struggling in the water. He stepped out to help her.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: There was a gentleman that was trying to cross over the Tiber River location.




UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: He got swept under.

UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR #4: What did he look like?

HERSHER: It took two days to find Hermond's body downstream.

ANJEL SCARBOROUGH: My organist is practicing the Charles...

HERSHER: At the end of Main Street is a church, St. Peter's. Reverend Anjel Scarborough led the congregation in the weeks after the second deadly flood. The church is up on high ground, so it was a place that everyone came for cleanup supplies, for food, for someone to talk to.

SCARBOROUGH: There was such shock. I mean, it really was the shock of - this can't be happening again. This - you know, there's such denial in the initial stages. But then it was the mourning and the grieving of the, you know, the can-do attitude that - no, we can't go back and do this again. We have to face the hard reality that we have to let go of our life here, you know?

HERSHER: We have to let go of our life here. The second flood had cracked apart the town's veneer of safety. It felt dangerous. In the weeks after the flood, the county leader Allan Kittleman called a town meeting in the high school auditorium and said something extraordinary - I was wrong.


KITTLEMAN: For 246 years, the people of Ellicott City have said, we know better than the river, and we can impose ourselves on the river, and we'll make it work for us. And frankly, I was a believer in that until this flood.

HERSHER: Kittleman had been leading the charge to rebuild just 22 months earlier. Now, he said, the town needed a new plan.


KITTLEMAN: Frankly, now I've realized that we can try all we can do impose ourselves on this river and these streams, but the water doesn't listen, and we need to decide how we can coexist with the river.

HERSHER: And then Kittleman announced a plan for saving Ellicott City. It had been developed using the best hydrological model available, and the plan had three parts. First, temporarily stop building homes and businesses up on the ridges around Main Street to control runoff. Second, build new retention ponds and bigger culverts so the water that did come down wouldn't flood the road as much.

But it was the third part of the plan that would destroy friendships and pit neighbors against each other and nearly destroyed the entire social fabric of old Ellicott City. The third part of the plan was to tear down 10 buildings on Main Street to make room for the river. And this is where the story of the people of Ellicott City becomes the story of climate change in America. When the climate changes and the future no longer looks like the past, people all over the country are forced to make huge, life-changing decisions. There's no playbook for how to do it, and there's no cavalry coming to help, and if it goes wrong, your town can die.

Tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, what happened next in Ellicott City.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
Ryan Kellman is a producer and visual reporter for NPR's science desk. Kellman joined the desk in 2014. In his first months on the job, he worked on NPR's Peabody Award-winning coverage of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. He has won several other notable awards for his work: He is a Fulbright Grant recipient, he has received a John Collier Award in Documentary Photography, and he has several first place wins in the WHNPA's Eyes of History Awards. He holds a master's degree from Ohio University's School of Visual Communication and a B.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute.