Monday, August 8, 2016

Ellicott City Flood: Kittleman finds the balance between safety, preservation and property rights

The unfortunate rain event and flood in Ellicott City raises questions of development patterns, resilience, insurance and what can be done to avoid such floods in the future.
Two buildings thought to date back to the early 1800's that lost support
under their demising wall (Photo: Preservation Maryland)

The state of emergency that continues raises another set of questions: What is the right balance between risk management, preservation of cultural assets and individual freedom?

Kittleman, the County Exec told the media: I won't compromise safety. Period. And with that it was decided that the two historic buildings had to be demolished unfortunately. Their fate seemed sealed.

It wouldn't be unheard of, if they were to be demolished with all the belongings inside.  When Baltimore's historic Gypsi's Cafe building partially collapsed through unauthorized construction inside, the building was entirely leveled by City owned bulldozers within 24 hours with everything inside including the entire commercial kitchen, all dishes, all glasses, and all silverware of the restaurant. The beer tanks in the basement were buried in the rubble.
Emergency stabilization instead of demolition
(Photo: Preservation Maryland)

But that is not what happened in Ellicott City. Demolition would be complicated and required careful planning because the building spans the Tiber creek and could have fallen into it clogging it and causing additional flooding.

Additionally, Preservation Maryland, a non-profit devoted to historic buildings and cultural assets, reached out to the County Executive and accomplished that engineers they hired got a chance to assess the situation. They were allowed to take stabilization efforts that were put in place yesterday. Preservation Maryland supported the structural engineering services from emergency donations for which they that had put out a call within 12 hours after the flood hit. For the moment those two historic structures are saved from the wrecking ball and the folks who live upstairs and had been on vacation during the event could get a chance to collect their belongings.

The morning after the night of catastrophic flooding politicians of all stripes assembled in front of flood ravages stores and buildings to announce their resolve to rebuild. Since then the street has been closed to anybody except first responders. A few times residents and shop owners got "permission" to hop on to those little Kabota and John Deere carts that roam any type of event otherwise closed to vehicles and visit their property.
Paintings rescued (Photo ECStrong)

The County Executive or his chief Fire Marshall (or who knows who) decide what exactly was permitted: A ten minute visit and and one large Tupper Ware type plastic box with lid that could be filled with the most precious belongings. The media interviewed folks about what they picked in a scenario, which matches everybody's absolute nightmare. The exercise was at least once cut short because emergency workers noticed movement in the two attached buildings just east of Caplans that were now shored up thanks to Preservation Maryland.

The determination of structural stability and the ten minute/one box visits beg the question, if property rights and public safety can be balanced even if safety, naturally, must have the highest priority. As the Preservation Maryland example shows, things are rarely fully yes or no, or simply black or white. Often there is a "it depends".

Still, in emergencies one can often observe that those who never stop deploring the so-called nanny state react the same way as their counterparts who always emphasize the common interest over the individual one. In an emergency all power is bestowed on a single authority, final and without recourse, other communal interests such as preservation or the individual's property rights area seemingly wiped out.
additional engineering resources brought in: Preservation MD
(Photo: Preservation Maryland)

Now, before anybody gets all bent out of shape, clearly a State of Emergency must mean that individual rights are curtailed for safety and welfare of the community at large. Clearly, in Ellicott City one couldn't and shouldn't have permitted every dick Tom and Harry to roam the disaster scene for selfies or self appointed disaster aid nor could one have let just any property owner climb up to the upper floors on buildings in danger of imminent collapse.

Disaster response the morning after seemed well coordinated and efficient. Fixing disrupted utilities, emergency shoring of foundations that were hanging in the air, removal of debris blocking access on the road. Abandoned and washed away cars were towed by the hundreds. A resource center was first established in the County's Carter rec center and then moved to the library and senior center.
Emergency shoring done by County response teams (Sun photo)

I have no reason to believe that this methodical response didn't continue day after day. A week after the flood work had progressed to the point that Main Street could be power-washed by a special truck. But shop keepers and property owners were still generally held off, even though damage on buildings varies widely. (Clearly some had finagled their way in anyway, with public works, inspectors, contractors, police, Red Cross, firemen and others moving in and out, there were opportunities to slip in for those who knew how to get into one of the permitted vehicles before they passed the checkpoints).

The question here is one of degree. Shouldn't tenants, property and business owners and others with their belongings inside the sealed off area be allowed to make informed decisions how much risk they want to take in order to get their stuff? People can sign indemnification clauses to jump of cliffs and bridges, but they couldn't sign a paper to enter their own house? How far do people have to be protected from themselves?
County Executive Kittleman addressing residents and emergency workers

Preservation Maryland's initiative and the Executive's response give hope that executive power has been used wisely.

Collapse is a complicated affair and is the result of a tenuous balance getting tipped in one direction. Just as in the hundreds of dilapidated row houses my architecture firm entered to take measurements for rehabilitation and which had survived years of instability. A great many of them were structurally highly unstable and some had lost more structural members than many of the structures in Ellicott City appear to have lost in the flood. Contractor's entered these buildings and stabilized them strategically until they were refurbished to become state of the art for sale or rent homes fully compliant with all codes.

A quick determination that a historic building must come down and that there is no other way, often rises doubts among engineers. With some resources and a second opinion, there usually are ways to stabilize the shaky equilibrium of those buildings without endangering emergency workers, sometimes with low key shoring, sometimes through the temporary use of heavy equipment to secure a place without having to step into it so that new supports can safely be put into place.
Sidewalks backfilled by County Departments (photo ECStrong)

Emergency declarations serve a good purpose. But even in matters of public health and safety there must be a reasonable balance and consideration of what really is the best approach, especially a few days after the immediate dust has settled. It looks like in Ellicott City that balance has been found.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Donations to Preservation Maryland fund can be made here

Related article on this blog:
What nearly wiped out Ellicott City and what should be done about it