Before the Next Flood
Contending With Climate Change on Maryland’s Eastern Shore
Previously published in the December 2010 issue of Chesapeake Quarterly.
Nick Lyons remembers when tomatoes grew in southern Dorchester County, Maryland, when bustling canning operations and crab-processing plants made Crapo and Hogsville prosperous, back before farm fields and pastures became marshes. He’s seen the waters rise since then—freak floods that are no longer freak, normal high tides pushing higher and higher. For more than 20 years, Lyons has served in the county’s executive office; he’s currently the codes administrator and floodplain manager, charged with inspecting properties and granting permits for new construction and structural renovations. For decades, he’s given the same advice to homeowners seeking permits: “Whatever you do, elevate your house out of the floodplain.”
Since the 1990s, Lyons has advocated that the county’s building codes should include elevation, or “freeboard.” The term is familiar to sailors and people who make their living around boats: it’s how far the lowest watertight deck of a ship sits above the waterline. On land, freeboard is how far the lowest floor of a house would sit above the high water line during a flood—a factor of safety that can better protect buildings from wave action, ground settling, or sea level rise.
Legislation to make this safety factor part of the building requirements has been introduced three times in the Dorchester County Council since the early 1990s; three times it’s been defeated. The bills have been voted down because of concerns over increased building costs, according to Lyons, who believes this concern is ill founded.
He says the cost increases would likely never exceed one percent of the cost of the house, and incorporating freeboard could also lead to a discount on federal flood insurance, around 20 percent, Lyons explains. “The investment is priceless, in all honesty.”
But freeboard has been a tough sell in Dorchester County. On an October evening in 2010, Lyons is preparing to make a case for it once again. The county council is conducting a public hearing on freeboard legislation, re-introduced in September. Lyons is optimistic. Bill 2010-20 would amend the Dorchester County Code by requiring all new construction and any substantial improvements to residential and commercial structures to elevate the lowest floor at least three feet above the base flood elevation.
Lyons is presenting the bill. “I am going to try my best to get this through tonight,” he says. “It will be a good thing for the county. Whether they see this yet remains to be seen.”
Lyons hopes the political climate for passing freeboard legislation finally may be right in Dorchester County. This is the first time a freeboard bill has come up since Hurricane Isabel inundated the county in September 2003.
Hundreds of houses in the county were damaged by the storm and flooding. While some have since been elevated and rebuilt, many others have been abandoned.
“I think I’ll get it this time,” he says. “Isabel will be my saving grace.”