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An intercontinental coalition to create a resilient community

Residents and volunteer scientists collaborate across continents to build flood resilience 


Ellicott City, Maryland, is part of the Baltimore metropolitan area, but this charming, historic mill town on the banks of the Patapsco River can feel like a step back in time. 

Unfortunately, homes that are a treasured legacy of the city’s historic roots have been badly damaged by a string of severe floods in recent years. These neighborhoods are also experiencing a loss of generational wealth, accelerated redevelopment and clear-cutting. The vegetation loss is destabilizing river slopes and increasing erosion, making floods even more damaging. 

With the odds stacked against them, residents are struggling to save their historic homes. Now, they are teaming with experts in a Thriving Earth Exchange project to get the data they need to build a more resilient community.


Empowering the community

Local residents created a community organization called Ellicott City Flood Solutions in 2011, after a catastrophic flash flood destroyed homes, vehicles, yards and more. The organization gained even more attention when equally destructive flooding occurred in 2016, and again in 2018. 

“We formed to represent community interests in county stormwater management projects, and to help the county focus on flood solutions for our homes, not just on business interests,” explained co-founder Gayle Killen. “It’s important to the community that we persist.”

The organization’s first steps were to bring people together and inform fellow community members. The group’s founders went door-to-door to speak with neighbors, hosted community dinners and picnics, led post-flooding recovery efforts and launched a Facebook Group.

They also advocated for change with local authorities. Although it was at times an uphill battle that pitted residents against elected officials and business interests, group leaders spoke out for improved stormwater management practices at county board meetings and development hearings. 


Seeking science

Community voices are crucial to starting a movement, but Ellicott City Flood Solutions members realized that their cause could benefit from some scientific expertise. They were passionate about saving their neighborhood, but they weren’t hydrologists, erosion control specialists or flood mappers. They needed scientists who could connect the dots and collect data that would convince local authorities that the problem was truly dire.

That’s when the group connected with Thriving Earth Exchange, kick-starting a new collaboration that has already involved multiple partnerships and spanned an ocean to help Ellicott City residents get the answers they need. 

Through a contact at the Anthropocene Alliance, a Thriving Earth Exchange partner, community members were matched with Caitlin Mandeville, a Thriving Earth Community Science Fellow who is a doctoral candidate in biodiversity dynamics at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. As project manager, Mandeville’s role is to coordinate project activities and help identify data needs and potential resources to address the community’s priorities.  


Creating a coalition

The first step was to bring in hydrology, climate and green infrastructure experts who can accurately assess existing conditions, predict future flooding models and redesign stormwater plans. Marita Roos, a local landscape architect and planner, joined the project through the American Planning Association, a new Thriving Earth Exchange collaborator. Jose Manuel Molina Tabares, a hydrologist and water resources engineer with a particular focus on climate adaptation, lives in Ellicott City. A third expert contributor, Pearce Wroe, a water resources engineer and expert in stormwater management, was already working with Ellicott City residents to update their properties.

Mandeville says virtual collaboration tools and the dedication of local contributors have made it possible for her to coordinate the project despite living some 3,700 miles away in Norway. “Of course I would love it if I could see everything there with my own eyes,” she said. “But one of the strengths of the Community Science Fellowship program is how it enables everyone involved to draw on a broad network of expertise and experience from folks located all around the world.”

The coalition has already forged a strong bond. Scientific partners say they are in awe of the energy and advocacy they’ve seen from Ellicott City Flood Solutions members, and would be lost without that “insider” expertise. The feeling is mutual – Killen and her co-founders feel lucky to have the support of Thriving Earth scientists and partners. Even more good news is that the coalition has not just the backing, but the enthusiastic support, of Howard County’s District 1 County Council Team. Now, the challenge is to continue to build momentum, quantify future flood risk and work with local officials on long-term resilience solutions. 


Future steps

Taking on a complex, systemic issue like stormwater flooding is a huge challenge, and the Ellicott City project is in its early stages. However, this talented team is off to an amazing start. While the scientists begin their initial work, community leads are finalizing a survey to provide a focus for the scientists’ attention and creating a walking tour of the Patapsco River’s Hudson branch to call attention to problem areas.

Building resiliency requires transparent, iterative risk mitigation measures that emphasize community priorities. With dedication and both scientific and community-based expertise, this remarkable coalition aims to create a future where Ellicott City’s historic homes – and their residents – are resilient in the face of catastrophic flooding.

mgoodwin editor

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