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To save its future, will this Md. town have to destroy its historic business district?

Climate change has profoundly affected Ellicott City, Maryland. The mill town, located where multiple waterways converge, was devastated by a flood earlier this year, after already suffering a deadly deluge in 2016. John Yang and a team from the University of Maryland's Capital News Service explain the debate over whether destroying Ellicott City's historic buildings could help save the town.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Climate change is forcing many communities across the country to think about new ways of adapting.

    One town in Maryland has been hit especially hard.

    John Yang and a team of students from the University of Maryland Capital News Service visited Ellicott City to explore the town's future, and produced this report for our weekly segment the Leading Edge.

  • John Yang:

    It's a town people love, its streams and hills, its historic architecture and quaint shops.

    It's no surprise that "Money" magazine recently named Ellicott City, Maryland, one of America's best places to live, so attractive that, in recent years, its population has exploded.

    It was originally built as a mill town, channeling multiple waterways down to the flour mill, one of the first in the country. It has a history of flooding.

  • Jon Weinstein:

    The thing about Ellicott City is, about 250 years ago, it was designed to do exactly what has happened during these floods.

  • John Yang:

    But the 21st century effects are very different. Outgoing Howard County Councilman Jon Weinstein represented the town for four years.

  • Jon Weinstein:

    Every drop of water that falls in this watershed converges at this point and is constricted. It goes where it wants to go, combination of climate change, upstream development and just simply the way the town is built.

  • Joan Eve Shea-Cohen:

    I have to say, you know, I would have my doubts if it were raining really hard, if I would want to come and shop in Ellicott City at that time.

  • John Yang:

    For 20 years, Joan Eve Shea-Cohen has had an antique business that she runs with some help from her friend Gary Weltner.

  • Gary Weltner:

    I worry that, suddenly, one day, there will be no Ellicott City, Maryland.

  • 911 Operator:

    Howard County 911.

  • Woman:

    Oh, my God.

  • John Yang:

    In 2016, a devastating flood destroyed the downtown business district.

  • 911 Operator:

    Ma'am, what's going on?

  • Woman:

    The water is above the door. It's coming in the building. We need someone to come in. We have no place to go up. Oh, my God.

  • 911 Operator:

    What's going on?

  • Woman:

    There are cars — there are cars flying down the street.

  • John Yang:

    It was called a freak storm, a once-in-a-lifetime event, three people dead, most buildings in the lower town gutted.

    Joan Eve and other people of Main Street dipped into their life savings to rebuild. They would come back stronger than ever.

  • Joan Eve Shea-Cohen:

    No doubts that I was going to come back.

  • John Yang:

    She took what had been destroyed, and made it sparkle. Then, this past Memorial Day weekend, Main Street learned it had not been a once-in-a-lifetime storm after all.

  • Gary Weltner:

    I remember, early in the day, it was beautiful. And sometime in the mid-afternoon, another shop owner came up and visited, and said, you know, the rain is starting, and it's not looking good.

    So we, of course, kept an eye on the water, and decided that this could become a very serious situation, but hopefully not a repeat of 2016.

    Suddenly, about, I would say it was around 4:15, we noticed that the water that was coming over onto the sidewalk was now starting to come in the front door.

  • Joan Eve Shea-Cohen:

    And, Gary, if he hadn't been there, I don't know what I would have done. I don't think I would have made it.

  • Gary Weltner:

    So, as the water started coming in, we moved a few things, thinking that all of this is going to pass. And it didn't. The water continued to come in. I tried the back door of the building, and it was dead-bolted.

  • Joan Eve Shea-Cohen:

    Then he went to the front door, and he could not open that door. The pressure of the water from the street was already rising, and he couldn't open the door. And when he did try to push it a little bit, then all this water started coming in, and then it was coming in.

  • Gary Weltner:

    At one point, when I'm at the front of the shop, I noticed that there were two cars very close together actually floating down the street.

  • Joan Eve Shea-Cohen:

    And Gary, I mean, he was amazing. He just focused. He focused on what we should do.

  • Gary Weltner:

    And, suddenly, the back left corner of the building just exploded. When that moment arrived, the showcases that were at the back suddenly started falling over, almost domino-like.

  • Joan Eve Shea-Cohen:

    It was like, oh, my God, you know, how are we going to get out of here? I mean, we couldn't get out the back door, and, now all of a sudden, showcases are following me around in the water and toppling over. And I didn't want to drown in my store.

  • Gary Weltner:

    As we are moving quickly to the front of the building, you know, ready to get out, I looked back and I saw a very large all-glass showcase tumbling into Joan Eve's direction.

    So much was happening so quickly, and I knew that, if I lost my focus, that we may lose our lives.

  • Joan Eve Shea-Cohen:

    But Gary had the smarts. He took an antique candlestick telephone, which was made out of metal, and he broke the glass in the top of the door, and he just said, Joanie, I want you to hold onto me as tight as you can. Do not let go.

  • Gary Weltner:

    Inside of the store, it was probably about just above our knees. But, outside, when we did step out into it, it was almost immediately up to the waist.

  • John Yang:

    To get from Joan Eve's shop to a second-story porch right over there, Gary dragged himself along this railing, with Joan Eve on his back.

  • 911 Operator:

    Howard County 911.

  • John Yang:

    Someone spotted them, and called 911.

  • Woman:

    Yes, there are two people stuck on Tiber River. The water is almost above their heads.

  • Gary Weltner:

    The water was up to our chins. And I thought, if we had waited three or four minutes more, we probably wouldn't be sitting here today talking to you.

  • John Yang:

    The town's leaders had to do something.

    What they proposed was radical, tearing down 10 buildings here in the historic heart of this town, including Joan Eve's shop. That would widen the river channel, and create an open space. They hoped that would reduce the severity of future floods by allowing the water to spread out. The cost? Fifty million dollars.

    The fate of Ellicott City is now in the hands of the incoming county council. Many have doubts about spending $50 million, when there are demands for more schools, more roads, more housing.

    Some are horrified by the idea of destroying buildings in the heart of town. Former Councilman Weinstein understands the dilemma.

  • Jon Weinstein:

    I think it's a valid concern. But then you have to weigh that with the practical aspects of, if we don't take this bold step, then what will be left of the town if another storm happens?

  • Gary Weltner:

    I just think that it is unfortunate that these buildings have become, essentially, the victim of urban development.

  • Joan Eve Shea-Cohen:

    If you have to have buildings removed for the safety of the people, what — why is there any other thought?

  • Gary Weltner:

    I think about the most recent event in Florida, and what happened in North Carolina, and what's happened in Puerto Rico, and what has happened in Texas, and the wildfires in California, and I can truly empathize with these people.

    So, I think we need to take a very good look at how we build, the decisions that are made, so we can guarantee a healthier Earth for future generations.

  • John Yang:

    These people are hardly alone in facing climate changes, but, here, the question is immediate. Do they have to destroy the heart of town in order to save its future? And can they come up with an answer before the next big rain?

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I am John Yang in Ellicott City, Maryland.

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