Resiliency In The Face of ‘Ruin’: As we rebuild Ellicott City, MD, what questions do we ask ourselves and what future do we envision?

We watch environmental disasters at home and abroad regularly. Our hearts went out to victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and to the hundreds of thousands of people lost in extreme weather events in Asia. We ache for people dying in extreme heat in the Middle East and we watch in anguish as people are swept away in massive floods in the Midwest. We fret over California’s drought situation because we know the future of food is on shaky ground. We know these aren’t just regular weather events anymore. We learn new meteorological terms; derecho, micro burst, convective storm cells. Those of us who read the scientific literature know that humans are fueling the fire for environmental destruction; burning fossil fuels, deforesting, building more and more impermeable surfaces, destroying protective wet lands, supporting an extractive economy which unravels our natural defenses and resiliency in the face of weather disasters. We see record-breaking heat yearly now. We’ve known for decades that warming would produce more extreme weather.

Some of us joined the clean-up efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and studied the intersection of climate change, poor ecological and community design, destruction of wetlands, storm water management, over-development, racism and classism and believed surely a disaster of this magnitude would force our culture to take a fresh look at who we are and who we need to become. Did it?

After watching my favorite little town, Ellicott City (EC), ‘ruined’ by a flash flood Saturday, July 30, 2016, it hit too close to home.  The term 1000-year-storm used by the media can be misleading. What they should report is that in any given year, there is a 1/1000 or 0.1% probability that a weather event of such a magnitude will occur. I grew up about 15 minutes from downtown EC and always thought I would settle down there. As an aspiring photographer in high school, I (and everyone else) honed photography skills around picturesque downtown, along the train tracks and through the forests. You could have found me and my friends dancing upstairs at The Phoenix on any given Saturday night.

The devastation is heart breaking. Two lives lost, homes and businesses destroyed; climate change and over-development refugees picking up the pieces and moving forward however they can. Of course blessings can be found in the worst pain. Every-day heroes emerge, communities come together in incredible ways to support each other. Unbelievable acts of kindness and selflessness make the tough times a bit easier to swallow.

Downtown Ellicott City is no stranger to flooding. An old mill town, it is situated over the Patapsco River at the bottom of a number of hills. It receives the entire areas storm water runoff. This was not a river flood, it was a flash flood, and as the lowest point in the area it received an unprecedented amount of water; 6 inches fell in just a few hours. Ellicott City is the fastest growing area in Maryland. There has been a 34% increase in population in the last 10 years. More houses, roads, parking, etc…all exacerbating storm water run-off problems in the face of extreme weather events that are becoming the new normal.

Ellicott City won’t be the same… and it can’t and shouldn’t be the same. Things must change and I hope Howard County government officials, community groups and citizens take the time to really think, collaborate and use thoughtful design processes as they rebuild. Tragedies like this force us to dig deep and grow, so, how do we improve ourselves and our communities to withstand future inevitable disasters. How do we rebuild? Do we rebuild in the same locations? How do we build resilience in the face of climate change and adaptation? How do we envision a different way and MAKE that vision come to fruition? We will need some serious cultural, technical and socio-political shifts to create resilient communities capable of shifting the paradigm. Here is one concerned idealist’s non-exhaustive list about what it might take to build sustainable, resilient communities.

Cultural Shifts:

  • We are happy with less stuff. We simplify our lives. We find true joy in few possessions. We value quality over quantity or size.
  • We are ultra conscious about energy, how we use it and where it comes from. Same goes for our food, food waste and WATER. We don’t buy products with petroleum in them. We’ve gone natural, we buy local. We eat more organic food and less meat. We start a kitchen garden and support local farmers using sustainable methods. We compost. We realize we don’t really need that SUV. Our lawns are more bio-diverse, attracting native pollinators, and we no longer worship chemically-treated grass.
  • We become much more thoughtful about community and ecological design. We apply permaculture concepts to everything we design. And we do it in a community-centered, collaborate process; design charrettes-galore with community input. We don’t leave the big decisions up to the developers and government officials making back room deals for money and power.
  • We seriously think about (AND DO) smart growth and storm water management. Developers stop chopping down forests and developing every damn green space there is. Governments stop letting them do this and at the very least make them integrate smart solutions into their design plans.
  • We weigh the externalized costs of destroyed ecosystems, low-wage labor, oppression and exploitation in our economic analysis and tune into our moral compass.
  • Neighbors lean on each other, they don’t hide in their homes in front of the boob tube. They barter stuff, time, energy, childcare, etc…
  • Our education system is updated to reflect the challenges and opportunities of this century. Students are taught to be critical thinking problem solvers in the real world rather than rote regurgitators of information for tests.

Technical Shifts:

  • We don’t just go with the cheapest option. We explore and implement more sustainable options, renewable energies and resources that will be more affordable in the end.
  • We make all kinds of great products out of recycled materials.
  • Permaculture design and bioswales are commonplace.
  • Rain gardens and rooftop gardens are ubiquitous.
  • We collect rain water and store it. We reuse greywater.
  • Wetland restoration and conservation efforts are fully funded.
  • Communities have terrific public transit systems and are bike-able.
  • There are less cars on the road and more people drive smaller hybrid and electric cars running on renewable energy.
  • Antiquated storm water management systems that release raw sewage into our waterways every time it rains hard are updated. Raw sewage flowing in our waterways becomes a silly thing of the past.
  • Communities become Transition Towns, towns dedicated to working together to reduce fossil fuel consumption.
  • Governments support the transition!

Socio-Political Shifts:

  • We understand we cannot rebuild and become resilient with the same oppressive frameworks that got us to this exploitive place. Racism, sexism, classism, etc… break down as we enter a new paradigm where we live more in concert with nature and each other.
  • As we rebuild communities and become more resilient, we are more conscious of the realities of gentrification and disaster capitalism and make sure low-income folks and people of color are always part of the process. We become aware of the voices that are and aren’t in the room and we work to make sure a diversity of voices are heard.
  • Governments no longer spend our hard-earned money on BS wars and stuff the American pubic does not support. Corporations pay their fair share. We are a true DEMOCRACY, not an oligarchy anymore; a government by the people for the people. The people are involved, writing letters, calling legislators, protesting, showing up at court, etc….
  • Governments invest in renewables, a green workforce, and the physical and mental health of constituents. They realize big ag. is destroying the land and our health and instead subsidize smaller sustainable farms feeding their communities.
  • Governments use our taxes thoughtfully to deal with our waste products. There is money to be made! They start municipal compost programs. They commit to rebuilding the eroding topsoil and do remediation.
  • With all this real work to do, there is no place to worry about legislating peoples private parts and where they choose to pee, who they have sex with or marry, what higher power they worship or don’t worship, etc… There is no room for oppression of any variety. Everyone is needed, valued and supported for who they are.