News & Community

Fifty Years After Hurricane Agnes, Office of Sustainability Preps for Baltimore’s Next Big Storm

A team of women is readying the city for future natural disasters, which are expected to become more frequent, more severe, and less predictable in the face of climate change.
—Photography by Mike Morgan

By the time the first raindrops arrived in Maryland, the impending weather had already been demoted to a Tropical Storm. The winds never crested 45 miles per hour, and the Category 1 cyclone that had formed in Mexico and flown over Florida would be described as “a big mushy thing” by the Washington Post on June 21, 1972.

But beginning that afternoon, and over the next two days, the final gasp of Hurricane Agnes, as it will always be known, would linger over the Mid-Atlantic, drenching Virginia to New York with historic rainfall—upwards of 19 inches—and compounding the already water-logged ground of a wet spring to create what the National Weather Service now calls “the most destructive, widespread flooding to occur in the eastern United States.”

Fifty years ago in Baltimore City, Mayor William Donald Schaefer would evacuate the Jones Falls valley, while the Gwynns Falls washed over roads and bridges, flooding into homes. Farther afield, the Dulaney Valley Road bridge over Loch Raven Reservoir was in danger of collapse, and the Patapsco River was pushed some 12 feet high through Ellicott City. It even moved the Conowingo Dam by a quarter inch. In the end, 21 people died across the state, including three children in Ruxton, and some $400 million in today’s dollars were needed to rebuild. The flora and the fauna of the Chesapeake Bay are still in recovery.

Today, 50 years later, a team of seven women is now working to prepare Baltimore for its next natural disaster, the kind of extreme weather events which, in the face of climate change, are expected to become more frequent, more severe, and less predictable.

“The core of what we do is looking at where in the city there are more intense climate risks and what populations are most affected by them, then figuring out how to build capacity to be able to prepare for, respond to, and recover from those events,” says Aubrey Germ, pictured right, the climate and resilience planner for the Baltimore City Office of Sustainability, formed in 2007. She and her colleagues  created the city’s Disaster Preparedness and Planning Project to address climate change threats and oversee its Climate Action Plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to carbon neutrality by 2045.

Of course, after Agnes, a number of other storms—notably Hurricane Isabel in 2003—have wreaked havoc on Baltimore, thanks in part to its historic harbor and surrounding tributaries. Flooding, caused primarily by precipitation, remains one of the city’s main climate concerns, as are coastal hazards, caused by tides, storms, and sea-level rise.

“Sea level in the Baltimore Harbor increased by 12 inches from 1900 to 2000 and is expected to increase even more between now and 2050—and beyond,” says Bruna Attila, the office’s coastal planner and tidal floodplain coordinator, pictured left, noting that the issue is magnified by increased land subsidence, aka settling or sinking, along the estuary.

To reduce the risk, Attila manages the city’s designated critical areas in proximity to wetlands, which in addition to creating wildlife habitat and improving water quality also buffer coastal floods and tidal surges. Meanwhile, her colleague, floodplain manager Joanna Birch, oversees the city’s involvement in FEMA programs that provide federally subsidized flood insurance to local residents.

“We regulate a much larger area than is mandated to keep people and property safe, all of which was definitely influenced by the damage we saw from previous events like Agnes and Isabel,” says Attila, who, in 2020, helped craft the city’s first nuisance flood plan, which will identify hotspots, causes, and mitigation strategies for more minor, recurring flood events. “Through this data, we’re going to be able to tell how much worse the problem is getting—and how quickly.”

One area of interest is the Frederick Avenue corridor, where the Department of Public Works is conducting hydraulic analyses and the Office of Sustainability is working with community partners to build resource and communication networks through its Resiliency Hub program. This neighborhood experiences nuisance flooding in addition to major events, such as the notorious 2018 spring storm that resulted in $3 million in damage but was overshadowed by losses in Ellicott City.

“Most people didn’t recognize that a largely African-American community in Southwest Baltimore was pretty devastated by that flood event,” says Germ, pictured right. “We know that climate change is an equity issue—it affects Black and Brown communities, especially low-income communities, more than others . . . They are inherently more at risk, simply because lack of access to resources and historic disinvestment in their neighborhoods and infrastructure. Part of our work is understanding these legacies of injustice, and that the burden of climate change falls disproportionately on these communities in very concentrated regions of Baltimore.”

It is in these neighborhoods, too, that other climate threats emerge, such as extreme heat, due in part to lack of greenspace. Pairing the shade and evapotranspiration of tree canopy with less impervious surfaces can reduce temperature, better absorb stormwater to alleviate flooding, and improve the overall quality of life for residents, a main goal for both Germ and Attila.

“It’s looking at solutions that tackle climate change and, at the same time, help improve the quality of life for residents,” says Germ. Attila points to the revitalization of Middle Branch Park in Cherry Hill as another co-benefitting project.

Their office—which includes acting director Ava Richardson, pictured center, environmental planners Abby Cocke and Amy Gilder-Busatti, and youth sustainability coordinator Valerie Bloom—also implements sustainability-themed programs such as the city’s recent foam container and plastic bag bans and provides input on relevant local and state legislation.

“There’s a lot of doom and gloom centered around climate change and the impact it can have on communities, but at the same time, there are really good people working on these challenges and trying to find innovative solutions all across the city,” says Germ. “I think that instills a sense of hope for the future, and we all can play a role.”