I’ve watched many climate disasters unfold from afar. But when the latest one happened, in Ellicott City, Maryland, I was trapped right in the middle of it.
Ellicott City is a former mill town that brimmed with quaint cafes, wonderful art galleries, and adorable boutiques. I was there with my son to celebrate my birthday. We casually moseyed down picturesque Main Street before we landed at Tea on the Tiber, a Victorian-styled teahouse lined with flowered wallpaper and an abundance of beautiful glass tea pots.
A scrumptious-looking tray of sweets and savories had just been delivered to our second-floor table when it began to rain. At first, we didn’t think much of it. Then my son got up, looked out the window, turned back to me and said, “We should get out of here.” The rain had turned into a monsoon and was falling so fast that the street had already started filling up. In five minutes, two feet of water were coursing down the street. In about 20 minutes, we faced a wall of water 20 feet high!
Beautiful Main Street now raged with a wild brown river that reminded me of the Colorado I’d rafted through the Grand Canyon. It was fast, powerful, and relentless. SUVs and other vehicles were sent rolling, along with dumpsters, huge trees, air conditioners, and other debris. Churning water smashed into store fronts, quickly flooding them to their ceiling, then whooshing out with all the contents they once contained.
We were trapped but we felt relatively safe until the doors and windows of our teahouse smashed in. Water completely filled the building’s first floor. As it began rising up to the second floor, we tried to identify our best escape route. There were about 50 other patrons and many of them took refuge on the small third floor. But there was no way out there, so Dan and I opted to keep an eye on the waters rising outside our second floor windows. If the water started coming in there, we decided we’d go out and take our chances in the flood.
We spent the next two hours letting loved ones know where we were and wondering what was happening to the cars we’d left in the parking lot. We had no hopes first responders could rescue us until the torrential downpour abated and the flood receded. Meanwhile, water rose Titanic-like, steadily up the stairs. Some people tore down lace curtains and tied them into a rope, but neither Dan nor I planned to use that to flee. Others suggested punching a hole into the ceiling so we could escape onto the roof. But how do you do that with the “tools” you use for tea and scones: teaspoons and butter knives?
Eventually, the rain abated, allowing first responders to get to our location, dig a path through the first floor wreckage. Then they guided us out. We took refuge in a nearby church, where two kind parishioners drove me and Dan to our respective homes late that night. Three days later, we learned that both our vehicles had been destroyed. Mine actually ended up getting carried all the way down Main Street and dumped into the overflowing Patapsco River.
City officials described this as a “thousand year flood,” one that should only happen once every millennium. But a similar flood actually occurred two years ago. Was climate change the culprit?
“Yes and no,” explained the Washington Post.
Climate change did not exactly “cause” the drenching thunderstorm complex that got stuck over Ellicott City for a couple of hours.
“However, climate change has probably altered the larger environment in which these small thunderstorms are embedded. Notably, the water vapor content of the atmosphere, as a whole, has increased and scientific studies have shown a statistically meaningful uptick in the frequency of extreme rain events over the eastern United States.”
Over the long term, these types of extreme floods are “probably becoming more common, in areas that are normally rainy, as a result of global warming.”
Poorly conceived development also played a role. Suburbanization of the hills behind Main Street paved over the green spaces that should absorb rainfall. It’s almost exactly what happened when Houston, TX flooded after Hurricane Harvey last year. Reckless development along the Eastern Seaboard likewise put many millions of Americans at risk when Superstorm Sandy struck.
It’s hard to get the images of the destruction out of my mind. But almost worse is knowing that this kind of disaster is going to happen again – and again, and again. Pay attention, stay safe – and please support our efforts to stop climate change.