There Is No Playbook : Embedded When a flash flood ripped through Old Ellicott City in Maryland, residents thought it was a freak occurrence. Instead, it was a sign of the future. And adapting to that future has been painful. To see photos from Ellicott city and video from the floods, go to

There Is No Playbook

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Hey, you guys. Before we get to the show, I just want to talk about something real quick. Over this past year, we - and when I say we, I mean the four or five people on any given occasion who are making this show - spent basically every day working to do one thing. And that was to take stories from the news and tell them to you in a way that helps you understand this insane world we live in just a little bit better.

I mean, that's why we spent late nights trying to find just the right way to tell you the story of how Mitch McConnell came to power. It's why we worked really hard to bring you a story that asked the question, just how far would you go to rescue someone you love, even if that person might've been part of ISIS? It's why we had really hard conversations about stuff like white nationalism because we want to understand all these headlines we're seeing about shootings and violence.

And the thing about all this is you are a huge part of helping us build this thing that we do on our show. You do that by making donations to your local NPR member station. EMBEDDED is part of the public radio network. Public radio stations give money to NPR. NPR pays us to make EMBEDDED. So when you give money to your local public radio station, it helps us. So here's how you make a donation to your NPR member station. Just go to and take it from there. Thanks. Here's the show.

Hey. I'm Kelly McEvers, and this is EMBEDDED from NPR.


CHARLENE TOWNSEND: I am so, so, so hurt. I am so hurt.

MCEVERS: Charlene Townsend is standing up at a public meeting in this town, Ellicott City, Md. It's about an hour outside of Baltimore.


TOWNSEND: I am so heartbroken. You have no idea because Ellicott City has been my whole life. And my mother started here in the '60s.

MCEVERS: And the reason Charlene is so upset is about two months before this meeting, a horrific flash flood destroyed her antique store and a bunch of other buildings in the historic part of town.


TOWNSEND: What am I supposed to do as the longest merchant owner of property down on Ellicott City? What am I supposed to do? This has been my life, OK? And even if I get the monies together to come back, why would I come back?

MCEVERS: She's asking herself and everybody this question - why would I come back? - because the flood that destroyed her store is a new kind of flood for Ellicott City, a flood caused by extreme rain. In her case, it was 6 inches in only two hours.

Extreme rain is happening more often, not just in Ellicott City but all over, because the Earth is getting hotter. Hotter air sucks up more moisture and then dumps it back down in the form of rain. This was one of the reasons for all the flooding during Hurricane Harvey and for the floods across the Midwest this past summer. And now after these storms, people are having to make really hard decisions. Do you stay and rebuild where you know the flood could come back at any time? Or do you leave and give up everything to keep yourself and your family safe?


MCEVERS: For the past year, reporter Rebecca Hersher and producer Ryan Kellman have been going to Ellicott City to see how people are answering these questions - do you stay, or do you go? How the way people are answering the questions has unearthed hurt and anger and destroyed friendships and, basically, how the new reality of climate change can change everything. That's our show today after this break.


MCEVERS: OK. We are back. And here's reporter Rebecca Hersher.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: No matter which way you come when you drive into Old Ellicott City in Maryland, you have to go down a long, long hill with rivers on all sides. And when you get to the bottom, the rivers converge around Main Street like a funnel. And then they dip down and go under the buildings in this narrow tunnel with walls on the sides and the floors of the shops and the restaurants on top.

The water was what made this seem like a good place for the Ellicott brothers to settle back in the 1800s. The original buildings down here were flour mills. The narrow, fast-moving water provided power. Wealth followed. And then the railroads came. And, eventually, the mills closed. And the town changed again into a window-shopping destination that was extra charming because the river is right there.

By the early 2000s, there were about half a mile of restaurants and boutiques on Main Street and new housing developments popping up on the ridges around town at the top of the funnel for all the people who wanted a little piece of that quiet, pleasant Ellicott City life. And all the while, extreme rainstorms were getting more and more common. And then the water underneath Ellicott City's buildings went from charming to deadly.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Just incredible amounts of rain in the Ellicott City area. All of Howard County...

HERSHER: On the night of July 30, 2016, rain started to fall in Ellicott City. Inside the bars and restaurants on Main Street, neighbors and friends were enjoying a Saturday night out. Rachel Smith had just graduated from high school. At around 6 p.m., she was working at the Bean Hollow coffee shop near the bottom of Main Street.

RACHEL SMITH: So it started raining. And, you know, we're just going about business as usual because no big deal. And then we see the water going down the street start to get a little bit higher until it's up to the curb of the sidewalk.


SMITH: Oh, my God.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Ma'am, what's going on?

SMITH: We are at Bean Hollow in Old Ellicott City on Frederick Road. The water is above the door. It's coming in the building. We need somebody to come in.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What's your address?

SMITH: What's our address?

HERSHER: Over the course of about 15 minutes, Main Street turned into a raging river.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Howard County 911.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yes. Hi, this is Phoenix Emporium.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We are currently underwater. And I have about 15 to 30 people in here. And we are trapped inside.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: There's people in the water.


SMITH: I remember telling the 911 operator that the floor was buckling.


SMITH: ...Is buckling. There's water....

And that we, you know, didn't have a place to go.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What's going on?

SMITH: We were afraid the place we were going to go was down.


SMITH: (Screaming).

We just didn't know what to do.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What's happening, ma'am? Are you guys able to go up the steps?

SMITH: Yes. We're going up.


HERSHER: Rachel and everyone in the coffee shop in the restaurant survived. But dozens of businesses were destroyed. When the water went down, the police found out that two people who had been driving when the floods started had been swept away. One was a 35-year-old woman named Jessica Watsula, who was visiting from Pennsylvania. The other was 38-year-old Joe Blevins. He had been driving with his girlfriend, Heather Owens, when the water lifted the wheels off the road and smashed the vehicle into a guardrail. Heather wiggled through the passenger window and grabbed onto a tree branch to pull herself to safety. When she looked back, she saw Joe in the water struggling. Police found Joe and Jessica's bodies more than two miles downstream.


HERSHER: Gretchen Shuey owned that coffee shop on Main Street, Bean Hollow, where Rachel Smith had been trapped.

GRETCHEN SHUEY: It really was a shock.

HERSHER: It was a couple days before Gretchen could get into her store. As she stepped inside, she was naively optimistic about what she'd find.

SHUEY: I still thought, OK. We can clean the equipment up. It'll be fine. The refrigerators will be fine because all the compressors are on top. I didn't know that they would be the first things to topple over. It takes about eight inches of water slowly rising before they just go belly up. So when they opened the back door and all of the equipment was toppled over on each other, all of it was destroyed. I couldn't believe it. Even the insurance assessors that came in were like, oh, yeah. This is a total (laughter). This is a total loss.

HERSHER: Dozens of businesses were damaged or destroyed. The sidewalks were gone. The bridges in town were stuffed with cars and dumpsters. We were really tested, one restaurant owner told me, really tested. And then came that question that happens after any natural disaster - do we rebuild or not? And in this case, almost everyone agreed. The storm had been a freak event, a thousand-year flood, the Weather Service called it. It wouldn't happen again. And so everyone - businessowners, residents, even the governor of Maryland, said the same thing. Let's rebuild Ellicott City as quickly as possible.


ALLAN KITTLEMAN: It's been 13 days since the devastating flood.

HERSHER: Allan Kittleman was the county executive at the time, the closest thing the town has to a mayor.


KITTLEMAN: Ellicott City will be rebuilt. Ellicott City will be reopened. And Main Street will continue to be a vibrant town for many, many decades to come, OK?


HERSHER: There was a sense of unity. Volunteers turned out to help. Supplies rolled in. And Maryland's governor praised the town's resilience. Rebuilding the town was hard work and expensive. People on Main Street poured their savings into repairing their businesses and homes. Some spent everything they had saved for retirement.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A major announcement for downtown Ellicott City 10 weeks after the devastating floods killed two people and washed away homes and businesses - tomorrow, Main Street will be open for business.

SHUEY: We were really proud of the rebuild.

HERSHER: Again, this is Gretchen Shuey, the coffee shop owner.

SHUEY: We knew that that was unusual that over 90% of the businesses were able to rebuild. And merchants that maybe squabbled here and there prior to the flood became friends. And it was a good feeling to have until the second flood. And then a lot of that changed.

HERSHER: On May 27, 2018, the thing that wasn't supposed to happen again happened again.


ANTHONY MASON: Torrential rain sent water rushing into Ellicott City yesterday for the second time in less than two years.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Howard County, 911. What's the location of your emergency?

HERSHER: Six inches of precipitation fell in less than two hours, soaking the hills around town and sending enormous volumes of water into the creeks that funneled down to converge at Main Street.


HERSHER: Just like it had in 2016, the water on Main Street rose quickly - too quickly for a lot of people to escape. And just like 2016, the water moved so fast and with so much force it picked up cars and dragged them downstream with people hanging out their windows, screaming for help.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: God, this is worse than the last one.

HERSHER: Newly repaired storefronts were smashed again. Newly repaved sidewalks washed away.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: My car is gone, and there's several cars that's going down the street.


HERSHER: National Guardsman Eddison Hermond was hanging out at a bar on Main Street. He was a regular there. He had worked at a pub a couple towns over and had helped open another bar there in Ellicott City. In the National Guard, Hermond had been trained to respond to natural disasters. When he saw a woman struggling in the water, he stepped out to help her.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: There was a gentleman that was trying to cross over the Tiber River location.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: OK. What happened?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: He got swept under.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: What did he look like?

HERSHER: The woman Hermond was trying to help survived. It took two days for search and rescuers to find Hermond's body downstream.

At the upper end of Main Street on high ground is a church, St. Peter's. Reverend Anjel Scarborough led the congregation in the weeks after the second deadly flood.

ANJEL SCARBOROUGH: There was such shock. I mean, it really was the shock of, this can't be happening again.

HERSHER: Remember, most people thought the first flood had been a random act of God, never to be seen again in town. That's why they rebuilt with such fervor, why they poured their life savings into reopening businesses, why they continued to live and work in a place where two people had died in a flood - because it was never going to happen again. So when it did happen again, the reaction was different. The can-do, build-it-back attitude was gone. Instead, people were sad and scared.


HERSHER: A month after the flood, the county leader, Allan Kittleman, called a town meeting in the high school auditorium and said something extraordinary - I was wrong.


KITTLEMAN: For 246 years, the people of Ellicott City have said, we know better than the river, and we can impose ourselves on the river. And we'll make it work for us. And frankly, I was a believer in that until this flood.

HERSHER: Just 22 months earlier, Kittleman had been totally sure that rebuilding was the right thing to do. Now, he said, the town needed to seriously think about whether it made sense to rebuild everything like they had before.


KITTLEMAN: Frankly, now I've realized that we can try all we can to impose ourselves on this river and these streams, but the water doesn't listen. And we need to decide how we can coexist with the river.


HERSHER: In the meeting, a lot of people got up to say how scared they were. Business owners told Kittleman they didn't know if they were ever going to be able to work there again. Later, he told me this meeting helped him understand that it was time to do something drastic.

KITTLEMAN: There were some people who have business at the bottom of the hill who said, Allan, you shouldn't let this town reopen until you fix this. Nobody else should die. And it really hit me, and I took that to heart.

HERSHER: About three months after the second flood, Kittleman announced a plan for saving Ellicott City. A lot of the individual details in the plan had come up before. When your town was purposely built on top of a river, you do think about drainage issues. But the two flash floods that had happened had been different - fast and deadly. And so some things that had come up casually in the past - things that might have seemed overly drastic - were serious options now.

The new plan had been developed using the best hydrology model available, and it had three parts. First, temporarily stop building homes and businesses up on the ridges around Main Street to control runoff. Second, build new retention pond and bigger culverts so the water that did come down wouldn't flood the road so much. But it was the third part of the plan that would destroy friendships and pit neighbors against each other and nearly destroy the entire social fabric of Old Ellicott City.

The third part of the plan was to tear down 10 buildings that were built on top of the river along Main Street to make room for the water. The idea was that without those buildings in the way, the river would spread out more after big rainstorms. The wider, less constrained water would move more slowly, and the buildings that were in the most danger would be gone, which would mean fewer people in harm's way. And this is where the story of the people of Ellicott City becomes the story of what climate change is doing in America. When the climate changes, people in small towns all over the country are forced to make huge, life-changing decisions. There's no playbook for how to do it, and there's no cavalry coming to help. And if it goes wrong, your town can die.


MCEVERS: After a break, the town had a plan, but then the plan started to divide the town.

OK. We are back. Rebecca Hersher reported this story with producer Ryan Kellman. You will hear him in a minute. Rebecca is going to start just after the plan was announced to tear down 10 buildings on Main Street in Ellicott City.

HERSHER: So here's what happened. The people in town divided themselves into two rough camps - those who were OK with tearing down buildings and those who were not. Maybe the most surprising thing was who was OK with it. By the fall of 2018, pretty much every business owner who had been working in the 10 buildings in question had come around to the idea. It wouldn't be easy, but they thought it had to happen. There was Sherry and Len Berkowitz, who owned the stained-glass shop. After the second flood, they were like, we're done - sold their building to the county and moved their store to a new location. There was the custom furniture place, Shoemaker Country. John Shoemaker and his brother did the same thing - sold their building, moved to a new space up on one of the hills about 2 miles from Main Street. Same with the women's gym, Miss FIT, that moved into a building up the street. And remember Gretchen, who had the teenagers trapped in her coffee shop during the flood? She still had to figure out what to do with her business. Producer Ryan Kellman has her story.

RYAN KELLMAN, BYLINE: Gretchen took over Bean Hollow in 2002. It was a lot of work and kind of a gamble. Gretchen had never owned a coffee shop before, but it was super popular. The business grew, and Gretchen made friends with everyone on Main Street. She hired local teenagers to work in the shop and had kids of her own. And then the first flood happened, and two of her employees almost died because they were trapped inside. But she rebuilt. She used her retirement, her savings for health care - everything she had she put it all back into the shop. She reopened, and then it happened again. And she was like, I cannot do this again. It wasn't just the money and time it takes to rebuild. It was that she understood the buildings weren't safe. And they were making the flooding worse by bottling up the water. Still, it was painful.

SHUEY: Running Bean Hollow's been my identity for 16 years. I had pride in it. It was a lot of who I am. And that's gone.

KELLMAN: Something else was gone, too - all that goodwill between neighbors and merchants from the first flood. Instead of banding together, people were questioning each other's motives. Like, why are you leaving? Do you not love this town as much as I do?

SHUEY: There was a lot of anger, a lot of hurtful words, a lot of people being unkind and disrespectful and not civil to each other. And I finally realized that everybody is just terrified.

HERSHER: Which brings us to the other camp. This camp was angry at the people in those 10 buildings - people like Gretchen, who had made the difficult decision to leave. This anti-demolition camp felt abandoned and betrayed. The idea of walking down Main Street and not seeing those buildings anymore was painful. Like this guy, Wiley Purkey - he felt personally attached to the buildings on Main Street because he grew up in them. Like, take that very last building at the bottom of the hill - one of the 10 that was slated for demolition. It's a bar now. But when Wiley was a kid, it was the Valmas Brothers Restaurant. He used to get a hotdog and a Coke at the counter there while he waited for the bus, and he still remembers the crush he had on the girl who lived upstairs.

WILEY PURKEY: A young lady about 9 years old named Evelyn (ph) lived upstairs with her mom.

HERSHER: Wiley's got memories like this for all the buildings. They're the foundation of his life - so important to him that he's spent his entire career as an artist - he's in his 60s now - painting scenes of Main Street. His workshop is full of them - Main Street in the snow, Main Street at sunset, Main Street in the '50s, in the '60s, in the '70s, the way the buildings look when you're looking down the hill at them, when you're looking up the hill at them, when they have Christmas lights on them.

PURKEY: The important history of those buildings is personal experiences shared by, you know, maybe just a couple of people, maybe by hundreds of people and maybe just by an individual like me. I'm sure nobody remembers that but me, but that's OK. It's here.


HERSHER: Wiley no longer lives in Ellicott City. He lives about 45 minutes away. But when he heard about the plan to tear down buildings on Main Street, it felt like a personal attack. So he spoke out, mostly on Facebook. This is, quote, "a horrifying, terrible plan created out of ignorance of the importance of the historic structures," he wrote. "Any attempt to fix the problem that destroys any structures in one of the most important historic districts in the country is a bad plan."

A fair number of people agreed with him. The state's historic preservation society joined in on their side, arguing that tearing down 10 buildings was too drastic. Thousands of people signed multiple petitions against the plan. Here's producer Ryan Kellman again.

KELLMAN: Not everyone expressed their opinions on Facebook as gently as Wiley Purkey. People called each other unhinged and ignorant and twisted and callous. And this was in a Facebook group with a banner that read, let's work together to save Ellicott City. Some people got so angry that they threatened to stop shopping at businesses owned by people who didn't share their opinion. Both camps said that people on the other side were being selfish - selfish for not valuing the town's history enough, selfish for not valuing people's safety enough.

HERSHER: And in at least one case, a pair of neighbors stopped speaking to each other altogether. Gayle Killen was on the anti-demolition side. She lives in a house from the early 1800s just around the corner from the 10 buildings that were slated for demolition. And a lot of homes in her stretch of Main Street had been damaged by floods. So same as with the 10 businesses, the county government offered to buy them and knock them down to slow down the water during floods. Gayle did not take them up on that offer, even though she's been repairing flood damage to her home pretty much continuously since she moved in, which she says baffles a lot of people in her life.

GAYLE KILLEN: Family and very dear friends will say, what are you doing here? Why are you still here? You know, especially if you know what's coming, why are you here? What's wrong with you, you know?

HERSHER: What do you tell them?

KILLEN: I tell them this place is worth sticking around and working for.

HERSHER: Her neighbor Beth Woodruff was in the other camp. Beth lived in a low house with a front porch across the street from Gayle. After the 2016 flood, Beth and Gayle got to know each other - in the way you do when you both go through something traumatic. The night of the second flood, Beth and her son fled to a church across the street and watched as water destroyed their front yard and ripped through their neighbor's houses. It was scary. And the more she learned about what had caused the floods, the more worried she got.

BETH WOODRUFF: The science is here. This can happen any year. It could happen multiple times in a year. And these people are in real danger.

HERSHER: So when the county said it wanted to buy her house to make more room for the water, Beth agreed to move.

WOODRUFF: It's like if your brother needed bone marrow, right? Like, I can find a new place to live. I'm sad. I'm really sad. But I genuinely think that, by taking my house down, the people who are upstream from me are going to be safer.

HERSHER: But after Beth agreed to move, Gayle did something that made Beth really angry. Gayle's house has this big window that's right next to the sidewalk. In the window, Gayle taped up a sheet of paper with a map of the neighborhood. She marked every home that had been sold to the county for possible demolition.

WOODRUFF: And I think the implication was that I'm somehow a sellout.

KILLEN: They began to, like, form this idea that I was attacking her directly.

HERSHER: Gayle says she was just arguing for a different plan. And then the final straw - Gayle posted a version of the same map of the neighborhood on Facebook. It felt to Beth like Gayle was trying to publicly shame her and invade her privacy as retribution for Beth's decision to move.

WOODRUFF: The way I see it, friends don't do that sort of thing to one another. Friends don't stab each other in the back or in the face. If you pretend that human lives are worth less than historic buildings, you're a despicable person, and I don't have any bones about saying that. You're absolutely despicable. Human life is the most important thing.

KELLMAN: Versions of this happened all up and down Main Street. Over the course of about nine months, the county purchased about a dozen buildings, including almost all of the 10 buildings on lower Main Street that were slated for demolition. That meant dozens of people who had been fixtures in the community were leaving or thinking about leaving. Front porch conversations went from mundane to conspiratorial. The gossip in town was about who was moving, who was staying, which buildings would survive and who was on whose team. And then the fall after the demolition plan was announced, the county leader, Allan Kittleman, was voted out of office. The local county councilman who had helped come up with the demolition plan also lost his job. It felt like nobody could agree on what to do, and the Weather Service warned that another flood could happen at any time.

HERSHER: What was happening in Ellicott City is common in communities that are dealing with disasters. A storm or a fire or a flood destroys part of a town - think New Orleans or Paradise, Calif., or any of the many small river towns that have flooded over and over in recent years. After the disaster or disasters, it's clear that the way the town is - where the homes and businesses are, how they're built - can't withstand the new climate reality. Engineers are hired to fix the problem, but no matter how advanced your models, how perfect your cost-benefit analysis, the problem can't be fixed by engineers and scientists alone, because it's not only an engineering problem. It's an emotional one.

BEN ZAITCHIK: Rebuilding decisions are not rational.

HERSHER: Ben Zaitchik is a hydrologist at Johns Hopkins University.

ZAITCHIK: And I don't think we should pretend they're rational.

HERSHER: Zaitchik has seen lots of towns deal with catastrophic flooding, and he says there are limits to what hydrologists can offer because it's as much about how people feel about the place they live as it is about what engineers say is going to fix the problem. So you have to make sure people's feelings about that stuff are being heard - otherwise, people are more likely to say no to whatever engineers are proposing. That's how a lot of people who love Ellicott City felt when they first heard the plan about removing buildings on Main Street. When you add that feeling of being blindsided to the fear and nostalgia and grief that comes with any deadly disaster, you're doomed to inaction. And your town could die a social death, even before the next storm wipes it out, which felt like a real possibility in Ellicott City. After six months of squabbling, the demolition proposal had stalled. So when the new county leader, Calvin Ball, took office in January, he announced that they were going back to the drawing board. And a few months later, Ball announced five new options. They all included demolishing buildings. It was just a matter of how many. There was also a tunnel in the mix to divert water, which was something that some people in town had suggested. For six weeks, the government took public comments on the plans. There were dozens of formal and informal meetings for people to talk to local leaders...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: So my question's about safety.

HERSHER: ...To ask questions...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: So I need to know how this is going to be funded. Is it going to be public...

HERSHER: ...To make suggestions...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Have you all studied the economic impact to the existing businesses on Main Street?

HERSHER: ...To be heard. And then in May, the county made a decision. Over the next five to 10 years, they will build a tunnel, buy about two dozen homes and businesses and demolish at least four. In June, trucks and cranes arrived on Main Street and started pulling debris out of buildings. Not everyone feels good about what's happening. Gayle still opposes it, and she and Beth still aren't speaking. Beth sold her house to the county and reluctantly moved away from Main Street. And in May, on the one-year anniversary of the second flood, Gretchen Shuey announced that Bean Hollow Coffee Shop will never reopen.

But a lot of people - maybe even most people - say they're OK with the construction plan, even people who are also grieving the loss of what the town used to be before the floods. And arguably, nobody is grieving more than Sally Tennant. Sally opened her store on Main Street in the early 1980s. She was one of the first boutiques to move in, when bars and grocers still dominated most of the street. She bought one of the buildings over the river, moved in upstairs and sold art and jewelry and comic book stuff and clothing on the first floor. She paid off her mortgage decades ago. When the first flood happened in 2016, the water smashed through the front windows of her store and swept her inventory downstream. She escaped upstairs.

Like most business owners, Sally rebuilt after that flood. She tapped into a retirement savings. She took out a loan. She moved into her son's guest bedroom. She figured her building would be her nest egg. If she could just get back in business and move into her apartment upstairs, she'd be fine. She could sell the building when she retired in a few years. The second flood happened just a couple months after she reopened. The water under her building smashed through the floor of her store, sucking everything away. Wind chimes on the rafters were left hanging over an open hole with water running underneath. Sally had been standing where the hole was just a few hours earlier.

SALLY TENNANT: I devoted 38 years of my life - which means an entire career. My life's work is gone.


HERSHER: Sally tried to reopen across the street, but her business just wasn't viable anymore, in part because there's less traffic on Main Street these days. Over the summer, she closed down for good.



HERSHER: On a muggy day in August of this year, I found her inside the shell of her old store. She was sitting in a folding chair next to the hole in the floor.

TENNANT: When I go into town now - I mean, it's hard to get over. Just - like, sometimes, I just shake my head. Like, really. This really happened here.

HERSHER: Sally is a strong person. You can see it in the way she's here, where she almost died twice, still cleaning out her store, in the way she showed up to every public meeting for years to talk about what should be done and advocate for business owners who are losing their buildings. She's also incredibly realistic for someone who's just lost everything. At this point, her opinions are nuanced.

TENNANT: My opinion? I'm glad they're not tearing down 10 buildings at this point, from a visual standpoint. However, the one thing that they can control is the manmade factors. So, sometimes, I feel a sense of optimism - like they're going to fix it. And then the pessimistic side of me says, can they fix it? The odds of it flooding again are very, very high.

HERSHER: And that's what consensus on Main Street looks like. People don't have to be happy with the plan, and they can still be scared. The only thing they can't do is nothing.


HERSHER: This story was reported by Rebecca Hersher and Ryan Kellman and produced by Chris Benderev and Tom Dreisbach. It was edited by Gisele Grayson and Lisa Pollak, with help from Neal Carruth, Gerry Holmes and Chris Turpin. To see Ryan's photographs from Ellicott City and really vivid video from the floods and the town's plans to rebuild, check out the interactive version of this story at It's really good. Thanks also to Geoff Brumfiel, Shawn Gladden, Sherry Llewellyn and Ron Peters and to Linda Poon, who wrote about Ellicott City for CityLab. Our lawyer is Micah Ratner. Our theme song is by Colin Wambsgans. Other music in this episode from Blue Dot Sessions and Ramtin Arablouei. Subscribe to this podcast if you have not already. Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. Hit us up on Twitter at @NPREmbedded. And please help support us by giving to your local public radio station. Go to And thanks.


Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.