Where was everyone when Southwest Baltimore flooded?

Published on: December 19, 2022 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: December 19, 2022 9:50 AM EST

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There have been no anniversary celebrations to commemorate the Irvington flood, no news articles a year or five years later where residents of the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood recount where they were when the waters surged down the street in 2016 and again in 2018.

In order for an event to be commemorated, it has to be recognized in the first place — and Irvington’s flooding never was.

Such are the perils of living in the shadow of Ellicott City, the beloved historic shopping and living district that barely survived two 100-year floods within two years of each other. Those floods got plenty of attention.

Irvington was so invisible that when the pastor of one of its churches, Pastor Michael Martin of Stillmeadow Community Fellowship Church, was coordinating a food and rescue effort after the 2018 flood, he took a break only to see himself on TV identified as an “Ellicott City pastor.”

The waters that deluged Irvington threatened not just to wipe the area off the map, but to erase its future as a working-class Black neighborhood.

Flooding on Frederick Road in 2018 prompted Pastor Michael Martin to work on a resilience plan.

“There wasn’t any general awareness that we flooded. It was eerie. Whereas for the next nine months, I could just say, ‘Ellicott City,’ and people would finish the sentence — ‘flood,‘” Martin said. “There was no lack of awareness at the city level, but there was a lack of awareness at the public level. The media was infatuated with Ellicott City.”

Eventually, Howard County received $167 million in federal and state funds to invest in warning sirens, water diversion plans, and rebuilding the business district. But the same rains that swelled the Tiber River in downtown Ellicott City also pushed Maidens Choice Run over its banks, causing a seven-foot wall of water to cascade down Frederick Road and destroying at least 140 homes, displacing many longtime homeowners in a stable Black community of quiet brick and stone structures. And the Stillmeadow community only received $500,000, much of it because the church lobbied hard for it.

Asked why Irvington and Southwest Baltimore did not merit more attention, Martin said he can’t know for sure. But the fact that his community is largely Black homeowners and renters, while Ellicott City is largely white and affluent, is not lost on him.

“I am sure if this was in Guilford or Roland Park, it would not have been ignored that way. If 140 of those homes were destroyed, how could we say it would not be a major story?” he asked. “Do I think it was racist? I don’t know. I know it wasn’t right.”

Why certain communities receive aid and others don’t can be complicated. The federal government tends to fund incorporated entities, and often asks for matching funds from them. A wealthier jurisdiction, such as Howard County, can afford those matching funds as well as seek large grants. In this case, the flood impacted a cherished historical area and business district that is the heart of the county.

Irvington, in contrast, is on the fringe of Baltimore City, near where it meets Baltimore and Howard counties. Instead of hitting the nexus of the jurisdiction, the floods hit a slice with mostly residential homes far away from the city’s center.

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Stillmeadow Pastor Michael Martin left, shows UMBC English professor Earl Brooks, second from left, and his students the Peace Park his church built. Brooks’ class is doing a podcast on the sounds of the park.

Gov. Larry Hogan requested the federal government declare Ellicott City a disaster area, unleashing federal loan and grant funds from the Small Business Administration and various federal emergency agencies. But Irvington did not receive the same declaration. Nor did neighboring Beechfield, a community of mostly apartments west of Irvington that also flooded in 2018. Nor did Yale Heights, a neighborhood of brick townhouses with awnings just south of Maiden Choice Run.

That Black communities receive fewer resources than white ones in a disaster is not new. It was clear during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, which was 98% Black prior to the storm, had significantly fewer emergency shelter trailers than did Arabi in St. Bernard Parish, which was 95% white before the storm.

In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit Crisfield, Maryland, the downtown area received funds to rebuild quickly, while the Black communities outside of the business core complained the government helped them last. A recent study of wetlands mitigation projects in Maryland showed that, of the 75 projects the state funded to restore habitats and prevent flooding, only three occurred in census tracts where more than 50% of the population were people of color.

Mark Cameron, section chief for watershed planning and partnerships at Baltimore City’s Department of Public Works, has been assisting Stillmeadow and Irvington with flood mitigation projects over the past three years. Those include rain gardens and a redone retaining wall to help control floodwaters.

With a major storm that damaged cherished buildings and led to harrowing escapes, it’s not surprising the Ellicott City floods captured both the attention of the public and legislature. Yet Cameron said it’s unclear why Irvington, Beechfield and adjacent southwest Baltimore communities along Frederick Road did not receive more attention and money like their neighbor.

“Community members do ask this question, ‘Why is all this work being done in Ellicott City and not here?’ And what we say to them is, ‘Ellicott City is a completely different jurisdiction,’” Cameron said. But he acknowledges the answer is less than satisfactory. “They have photos, they have memories. This flooding has been happening for decades. And we don’t want it to continue.”

Regardless of the reason for the disparity, Martin wasn’t about to wait for government resources. A native of Flint, Michigan, Martin had spent much of his career in California, and had returned to Baltimore for a chance to minister to his wife’s hometown. He knew, as he likes to say, that “Southwest Baltimore don’t get no love.” But he loved it.

Stillmeadow Community Fellowship sat amid 10 acres of forest — land that Martin reasoned could slow down the flow of water after the flood and become a community amenity if managed properly as well as a bulwark against future flooding and storms. Soil absorbs the water and trees help slow the flow, whereas hardscapes like parking lots act as conduits to push the water faster towards streets and homes.

With help from some congregants, Martin bushwhacked through the brush with a machete and found a diversity of trees, not to mention at least one man who made his home in the woods. He connected with Morgan Grove, the team leader for the U.S. Forest Service in the Baltimore region. Grove’s office is just four miles away, between Ellicott City and Stillmeadow.

“So we were looking at the forest and he was showing me a trail that had been created and how they’re working on the invasive plants. And I was really kind of struck by how it was kind of this, like, social ecological diamond in the rough that had many facets of it. And it was something that we could all work to cultivate together,” Grove said.

Then came the bad news. More than half the trees were ash trees, either dead or dying because of the invasive ash borer, a pest infecting ash trees nationwide. Grove’s colleagues told him Stillmeadow was too big of a job. But Grove, who was developing a rapport with Martin, had faith that volunteers would come. And they did.

College students from the University of Delaware, church members, and high school students seeking service hours all carried logs out of the woods and helped plant five plots of 1,800 trees total. Work was complete in 2019, a year after the flood. Grove plans to monitor the forest for 30 years, so there are 27 to go.

Martin also turned to Bonnie Sorak, interim director of the One Water Partnership at Interfaith Partners of the Chesapeake, which helps faith-based organizations reduce their impervious surfaces and become more resilient in the face of floods. He also partnered with his state delegate, Tony Bridges, newly redistricted to represent the church and also executive director of Blue Water Baltimore, a clean-water advocacy group in the region.

Sorak lives in Ellicott City; she didn’t know Irvington had flooded until Martin contacted her. Bridges also wasn’t aware until he began working with the Stillwater community as a clean-water advocate. But both Sorak and Bridges saw Martin and his community as willing to be at the fulcrum of a community that needed to increase its resilience.

Building trust, though, isn’t easy.

“The people who have lived here their whole lives — they don’t expect anything, because they have never gotten anything. It’s not just in the past five years — it’s been going on forever,” Sorak said. “They have every right to be skeptical, and suspicious.”

Bridges added that the disparity between Ellicott City and Irvington may bother Stillmeadow parishioners, but they do not seem to dwell on it.

“They are a really good example of how folks don’t wait on government. Once they find out what needs to be done, it’s from the grassroots up.”

What is happening, Martin says, is beyond exciting. The first time he saw a man running on the forest trail, Martin said, he cried. He chased the man and when he caught up to him, all Martin wanted to do was hug him. He settled on a thank you.

“This community thinks that there’s a community church. We weren’t, but we are now,” he said. “The power is in asking what you have. I didn’t wait for some white scientist to come to me. I went to Morgan and told him, ‘I have a park. You want to get with me.’ We advocate for help and attention, but if we don’t get it, we’re rolling. We’re figuring it out on our own.”

Rona Kobell, a longtime Chesapeake Bay reporter, is the co-founder of the Environmental Justice Journalism Initiative.