Rising Waters

September 12th, 2016

Lisa Craig’s office window looks out on Main Street, across from Kilwin’s ice cream shop and the Helly Hanson store. Every heavy rain, she gets a vivid reminder of just how vulnerable Annapolis is to the freaky weather that somehow seems normal these days.
“Main Street becomes a river,” she said the other day, “the water pours down over the bricks and curbs into the harbor.”
Lisa Craig’s title is Chief of Historic Preservation for the city of Annapolis. A more apt title would be Chief Drum Beater. Her mission: wake up the people of Annapolis to the existential threats posed by flooding, storm surges, torrential rains and the slow, silent danger of sea level rise.
“When I took this job five years ago, I barely thought about sea level rise,” she says. “Now, I spend 50 per cent of my time on it.”
The most vulnerable portion of Annapolis is arguably its most important: the Historic District, a National Historic Landmark since 1965 that contains 180 of the finest 18th century and later homes and commercial buildings in the country. Total estimated value: $288 million.
The greatest threat to Annapolis and the Chesapeake is unmistakable and beyond argument: as polar ice melts, the oceans warm and the land subsides, the average sea level will rise. Scientists forecast anywhere from one to three feet of elevation by 2100, maybe more.
In that event, the so-called “nuisance flooding” that we saw around City Dock over Labor Day weekend would become more than annoying. Newman Street would become the Newman Canal, unless something is done to prevent it. (The large family of ducks clearly enjoy themselves on the watery pavement now, but even they would have to swim for it.)
Storm surge from a hurricane like Isabel is another grave threat to downtown Annapolis, especially in an era when 100-year storms seem to come along every decade or so.
Last Sunday, The New York Times featured a page-one takeout headlined “Global Warming’s Mark: Coastal Inundation,” with a subhead that read: “Decades of Warnings by Scientists Are No Longer Theoretical.”
Inside, The Times ran a dramatic, full-length graphic of the east coast, showing endangered cities from Boston to Key West. Annapolis was just above the fold, showing a sharp increase in “sunny day” flooding over the last 65 years, from fewer than 10 days-a-year in 1950 to more than 60 days in 2015.
By contrast, low-lying Norfolk, Virginia had just 10 such days in 2015, lower-lying Miami just 14.
That’s the reality and trend line that Lisa Craig is trying to impress upon the Annapolis public consciousness. She has made some progress: under the catchy rubric “Weather It Together,” a loose coalition of city, county, state and Federal agencies have been beating the drum.
They turned out a large crowd to hear oceanographer and author John Englander discuss the threat to Annapolis, and a smaller but interested audience for a day-long, planning seminar on practical solutions. They have held more than a dozen community presentations and enlisted over 1,250 people in public engagement activities.
But, human nature being what it is, namely, not inclined to worry about a problem until it is lapping at the doorstep, no members of the public turned out last Thursday at an open City Hall meeting of the Weather It Together core group to hear a presentation on the devastating flooding in historic Ellicott City in July.
Joe Budge and Ross Arnett, the Aldermen who represent the most vulnerable areas of the city, were there, along with several dozen business and community leaders. They listened as Ellicott City and Annapolis were described as “eerily similar” in terms of vulnerability to flooding.
Alderman Budge, asked where on a scale of one-to-ten he believed Annapolis was in terms of public awareness of the dangers confronting it, he said: “Maybe three or four,” adding: “it will be another year, year-and-a-half before we will have a plan on how to deal with it and what it will cost.”
That is probably right, given that the city’s updated hazard mitigation and cultural resource plan is not expected to be approved before the end of 2017.
In the meantime, as Johnny Cash once sang, “If the Good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise,” Annapolis will stay dry and its historic heart preserved.


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