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OPED: Ellicott City disaster again and again

Jon Clark
Citizens Climate Lobby

Here we are again.  Almost two years ago, I wrote an op-ed about the flash flooding that devastated downtown Ellicott City, Maryland, on July 30, 2016. Meteorologists called it a “once in a thousand-year event,” meaning that, statistically speaking, a flood of that magnitude (or greater) has a 1 in 1000 chance of occurring in any given year. 

More:OPED: Ellicott City video mirrors our response to climate change

I wrote about the extreme amount of precipitation that fell in the area (a little over 6 inches) in one storm.  According to the Baltimore Sun, “that July 2016 storm cost the historic mill town tens of millions of dollars in damage and lost business.” I wrote about society’s and our government’s response (or lack of) to climate change. “This is worse” than the storm in July 2016, which killed two people and destroyed local businesses, Howard County executive Allan H. Kittleman said at a news conference Sunday evening.

A man checks the trunk of a car that is sitting on its side in a parking lot near Main Street May 28, 2018 in Ellicott City, Md. A clean up of the river and the town are underway after heavy rains flooded the area on Sunday, two years after a similar event brought extensive damage to Main Street. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

 Meteorologists are calling the latest storm to hit Ellicott City on May 27 another “thousand-year storm,” the second to hit in two years. The Washington Post reported “the radar estimates 9.6 inches of rain fell midway between Ellicott City and Catonsville, with somewhat lesser surrounding amounts. It indicates around 6 inches fell in Ellicott City proper. But weather radars notoriously underestimate rainfall. Automated rain gauges in and around Catonsville, at ground zero, recorded nearly 13 to 15 inches of rain. The National Weather Service received a gauge report of 8.4 inches in Ellicott City.” 

Family photos rest among debris after flash flooding in Ellicott City, Md., Monday, May 28, 2018. Sunday's destructive flooding left the former mill town heartbroken as it had bounded back from another destructive storm less than two years ago. (AP Photo/David McFadden)

Ellicott City normally gets a little more than 4 inches of rain the entire month of May.  Army National Guardsman Sgt. Eddison Hermond tragically lost his life in the flooding trying to rescue a woman from raging floodwaters.

More:Historic Ellicott City faces long recovery after flooding

If we continue to burn fossil fuels and pump massive quantities of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, the planet will continue to warm unabated.  The reason for these heavy downpours is well understood by scientists. Warmer air can contain more water vapor than cooler air. Global analyses show that the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere has increased because of human-caused warming. This extra moisture is available to storm systems, resulting in heavier rainfalls. 

This image made from video provided by DroneBase shows vehicles swept by floodwater near the intersection of Ellicott Mills Drive and Main Street in Ellicott City, Md., Monday, May 28, 2018. Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman said Monday morning that his priorities are finding a missing man and assessing the condition of buildings that house shops, restaurants and families. (DroneBase via AP)

By ignoring climate change and refusing to reduce the amount of carbon pollution we are dumping into the atmosphere, we are stacking the deck to make thousand-year floods more common.  

Ignoring climate change is exactly what the Trump Administration is doing. The Washington Post recently obtained an internal White House memo that shows how the Trump Administration is planning on dealing with federal climate science reports.  

Residents gather by a bridge to look at cars left crumpled in one of the tributaries of the Patapsco River that burst its banks as it channeled through historic Main Street in Ellicott City, Md., Monday, May 28, 2018. Sunday's destructive flooding left the former mill town heartbroken as it had bounded back from another destructive storm less than two years ago. (AP Photo/David McFadden)

According to the Post, “the memo presented three options without endorsing any of them: conducting a “red team/blue team” exercise to “highlight uncertainties in climate science”; more formally reviewing the science under the Administrative Procedure Act; or deciding to just ‘ignore, and not seek to characterize or question, the science being conducted by federal agencies and outside entities.'”  

Climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe tweeted this response to the memo, “so according to this memo, the administration considered 3 options: framing reality as being up for debate; developing their own view of reality; or ignoring reality — and went with option 3. Interesting that 'accepting reality' was not an option."

Water rushes through Main Street in Ellicott City, Md., Sunday, May 27, 2018. Flash flooding and water rescues are being reported in Maryland as heavy rain soaks much of the state. (Libby Solomon/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

Many small businesses in Ellicott City have had enough. An article in the Baltimore Sun explained the plight of many of these business owners. Gretchen Shuey, 48, the owner of a coffee shop called Bean Hollow, recently announced on her Facebook page that “after a lot of soul searching and a lot of heartbreak, we feel that as badly as we want to come back, we cannot in good conscience rebuild in E.C.”  

Residents gather by a bridge to look at cars left crumpled in one of the tributaries of the Patapsco River that burst its banks as it channeled through historic Main Street in Ellicott City, Md., Monday, May 28, 2018. Sunday's destructive flooding left the former mill town heartbroken as it had bounded back from another destructive storm less than two years ago. (AP Photo/David McFadden)

Jerome Scott of Cotton Duck Art & Apparel also decided not to reopen, and Kitty Morgan, who owned the Summer of Love hippie shop, did not have insurance and doubts whether she’ll be able to raise enough to rebuild. Linda Jones, the owner of Tea on the Tiber, had insurance but said it would not cover all her losses.

More:Maryland community heartbroken after second flood in 2 years

The Ellicott City flooding is a good example of infrastructure built based on historical conditions, and climate change is taxing this infrastructure. Science is telling us that extreme flooding events like this will increase with frequency and intensity. The atmosphere doesn’t care about the politics of President Donald Trump or his refusal to accept the science. It’s physics and chemistry.  

A car is seen in a sinkhole on Frederick Avenue near North Bend Road in Baltimore, Md. during Sunday's storm on May 27, 2018. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

The reality is, failing to reduce greenhouse gases and prepare for climate change only makes our nation more vulnerable to its consequences. More disasters like Ellicott City will occur, more Americans like Sgt. Hermond will die, and more business owners like Gretchen Shuey, Jerome Scott, Kitty Morgan and Linda Jones will lose their livelihoods to score political points.

Rescue personnel walk along Ellicott City's Main Street on Sunday, May 27, 2018 in Maryland. (Libby Solomon/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

Thankfully the Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus is putting aside politics to seek solutions in the House of Representatives and continues to grow.  Just recently the caucus welcomed five new members: Reps. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn.; Tom MacArthur, R-N.J.; Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.; Peter Roskam, R-Ill.; and Ron Kind, D-Wis.

Water rushes through Main Street in Ellicott City, Md., Sunday, May 27, 2018. Flash flooding and water rescues are being reported in Maryland as heavy rain soaks much of the state. (Kenneth K. Lam/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

The caucus now has 78 members, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. George Scott, who is running against Rep. Scott Perry for the new 10th District, has pledged to join the caucus if elected and seek a Republican to join with him. At a time when the current administration refuses to accept reality, we desperately need a serious bipartisan effort to address the issue. 

— Jon Clark is Mid-Atlantic regional co-coordinator for Citizens' Climate Lobby and lives in Lancaster.