Troubled Waters: Rising Floodwaters and the Toll on Marginalized Communities

By Maggie Haslam / Jun 26, 2020

When floodwaters rise, they disproportionately impact people of color. In Maryland, Marccus Hendricks is uncovering why.

Print magazine image of a couple walking through flooded streets of North Brentwood, Md. in 1955.
Image Caption
Street Scene- Mr. and Mrs. Charles Murray of 3910 Allison street, North Brentwood, MD., wade to work after the night's heavy downpour flooded streets and homes in the area. Image from the Washington Star, 1955.

An examination of infrastructure inequity in America cannot take place outside the conversation of race. The deeply-rooted discrimination and marginalization besieging people of color is writ large in the concrete and asphalt of every American city. These inequities are especially stark when the rain begins to fall. In Baltimore, it is commonplace for raw sewage to erupt into the basements of inner-city homes—often feet-deep of brown, foul water—every time the city sees significant rainfall. In the historic Washington enclave of North Brentwood, Maryland, stormwater flooding continues to plague the community, the result of its low-lying proximity to the Anacostia River and a history of missteps by government agencies. Over time, the water’s ebb and flow has led not just to greater environmental risk, but to significant impacts on human health, economies and social fabric.

For Marccus Hendricks, the situations facing communities like North Brentwood and Baltimore City are strikingly familiar. Hendricks has spent close to a decade studying the link between disaster events and the physical inequities of the built environment—such as loss of green space, lack of infrastructure maintenance and the uneven distribution of resources—particularly in socially vulnerable communities. This year, he launched the Stormwater Infrastructure Resilience and Justice Lab (SIRJ), which leverages a framework rooted in environmental justice and social vulnerability to disaster to understand hazardous human-built environments; examine the facets of flood risk; and initiate participatory opportunities to mitigate risk and create more resilient, healthy, equitable communities. Together with doctoral students Brittney Drakeford and Bridget Kerner, Hendricks is uncovering the history of the region’s racialized topography: residential segregation based on economic, political and social policy that, for hundreds of years, has limited Black and Brown communities in where they can live. The flooding events that impact these communities are not just a side effect of climate change, but the convergence of climate, aging infrastructure, disinvestment and a legacy of systemic racial injustice.

Understanding the history, says Hendricks, is integral to mobilizing a way forward.

“I think a lot of times, when it comes to more contemporary issues, we tend to focus on the ‘right now’ and future projections without looking at how we got there to begin with, and I think that’s the significance and importance of the work we’re doing,” says Hendricks. “How are race, community development, flood risk and land use connected over time? What were the options for a freedman to purchase land and start a community—I’m sure there is a difference between him and others.”

The Cost of Neglect: Baltimore’s Basement Problem

For much of the 20th century, Baltimore’s sewer system was considered to be at the forefront of infrastructure advancements. One of the last major cities in the U.S. to install sewer lines, the city was also the first to utilize a separate sewer/stormwater system. But as the decades passed without management and maintenance, cracked sewer pipes became overwhelmed with stormwater every time Baltimore saw significant rainfall, causing sewage to dump into local rivers and, ultimately, the Inner Harbor and Chesapeake Bay. The practice became so frequent that, in 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) sued the city, giving them 14 years to repair Baltimore’s network of sewer pipes, a decree that was later extended to 2021 then, last year, to 2030. And as the city slowly closed off the over 60 release valves across the region, basements across Baltimore began to flood.

Basement flooding isn’t a new problem from Baltimore. Yet, according to a 2017 article in the Baltimore Sun, crews responded to nearly 5,000 reports of sewage in city basements in 2015, compared to 622 in 2004.* The majority of these backups take place in predominately Black neighborhoods.

For Bridget Kerner, the problem is personal. As a resident of Baltimore City with a background in public health, she was interested in exploring an issue that, despite its prevalence, hasn’t been widely studied from a community planning or health perspective. “While the city has taken steps to address their aging infrastructure and manage the problem, from a community perspective, it hasn’t been addressed in the right way,” she says.

With the support of a Harvard Fellowship Grant, Hendricks and Kerner hope to spend the next year interviewing government stakeholders, like the MDE and the EPA, as well as coalition leaders and non-profit advocates doing work in this space, to shed light on the history behind basement flooding, where the real challenges lie and how they are being managed. Higher-level conversations are coupled with ground-level community outreach to provide a collective voice to residents; Hendricks and Kerner have attended community meetings and plan to speak with residents door-to-door to accumulate enough data to establish a baseline understanding of residents’ experiences in different parts of the city and how it ripples through their day-to-day life.

The process in gathering these experiences is complex. Many residents are hesitant to talk about what’s happening in their basements. When flooding occurs, neighbors often band together to handle the clean-up, with entire families donning rubber gloves and wrapping their feet in garbage bags to protect themselves from toxins and human waste. According to Kerner, it goes beyond the shame and stigma; for many residents, repeated flooding has cost them their homeowner’s insurance policies. In some cases, residents have claimed their neighbors have been dropped from their policies as well, simply by association.  

“We haven’t completed a lot of the qualitative in-depth work yet, but I think what we might find is that there’s not a lot of positive feedback and support when [these residents] are able to express what’s happening,” says Kerner. “So, when you seek out help, not only are you penalized, but your community is penalized. What results are these tight-knit clusters of residents who work together to solve this problem within their community but aren’t able to rely on the government or insurance companies to provide the additional support that they should be providing.”

According to Hendricks, this is the sociological tipping point. When cities do not plan for maintenance or management of infrastructure, it is often the most vulnerable populations who face the most risk; they are also the least equipped to effectively respond when crisis sets in. The COVID-19 pandemic is the most recent example; with scientists still unsure if the virus is transitable through human waste, it has raised new concerns for Hendricks.

“We as a nation have sort of abandoned infrastructure,” says Hendricks. “That’s reflected in some of these high-profile situations that we’ve seen from water quality issues in Flint to bridges collapsing in California. It’s evidence that we need to do a better job in the maintenance over a lifecycle, particularly in these communities that have been operating at the margins. Whether its COVID-19 or sewer backups, it seems that the most vulnerable amongst us bear the most brunt.”

Hendricks and Kerner hope that the quantitative and qualitative examination of Baltimore City leads to the kind of community response and support that shapes how the problem is managed, but also creates more conversations about disparities in resource allocation and infrastructure investment.

“Recently the City of Baltimore released a report that showed a wide disparity in the allocation of funds,” says Brittney Drakeford, who is also conducting work in the Maryland community of North Brentwood. “They were not allocating funds to some of the poorer communities at the same rates as some of the wealthier neighborhoods. Power and privilege have largely shaped policy decisions.”

“It was a really important step when Baltimore’s planning department recently reflected on where they’ve invested and came out to say, ‘we’re not doing this right,’” says Kerner.

Tracing Injustice: Flooding in Brentwood

Who makes the decisions for how a community is shaped? When a community does not have a voice in the conversation, how does that handicap their resiliency? The community of North Brentwood is a case study in power dynamics: 100 years ago, in the era of Jim Crow, residential lots in the northern part of the community were earmarked for African-American families—smaller than the lots to the south and prone to flooding from a nearby mill. The area’s low-lying typography and proximity to the Anacostia has created an environment for continued problems, now exacerbated by the effects of climate change.

Drakeford and Hendricks found themselves studying flooding in North Brentwood, ironically, after the thousand-year flood in Ellicott City in 2017; Hendricks quickly became the go-to voice of expertise in the news and caught the eye of North Brentwood city officials.

“North Brentwood had been facing chronic flooding for decades, really since the inception of the community,” says Hendricks. “They saw a young Black scientist who was working at the nexus of infrastructure and flood risk, and they wanted to get me in to bring their community up to speed to the endemic challenges related to flood risk and the options in addressing it. That was the start of that relationship.”

Hendricks brought in Drakeford, who had previously worked as a historian for the Prince George’s County Black History Program and who is pursuing her doctoral degree in urban planning under Hendricks. Initially, Hendricks hoped to bring attention to North Brentwood’s story, but quickly recognized that with Drakeford’s expertise, they could engage with the community in a deeper and more meaningful way. Using archival documents and oral histories, Drakeford is creating a timeline that traces North Brentwood’s lineage of flooding through the history of land use, development and policy. Laid bare is what Drakeford calls a “deep legacy of divestment,” with stories of power and privilege at play, and how communities become more vulnerable and susceptible to issues of flooding when decisionmakers are not taking their interests into consideration.

“I believe there are tales of resilience that can serve as examples of best practices for local and community governments across the country as to how you deal with issues of urban flooding, how you think about power and privilege as it relates to the built environment—not just social structures of injustice, but how those structures have managed to manipulate the built environment,” says Drakeford.

“Brittany has a first-hand account of how disparities in power and privilege are built into planning practice, policies and implementation that a lot of folks might not be privy to,” says Hendricks.

As the research at SIRJ progresses, the team is exploring pathways to support communities. This includes reports that contextualize community issues which, Hendricks explains, helps legitimize things that the communities intuitively already know. An affiliation with UMD’s Environmental Finance Center poses new opportunities to connect municipalities with resources and pathways to funding. Hendricks also plans to draw on his experience of activating residents as citizen scientists, empowering them to ask questions and collect information to address grand community challenges. Continued research and outreach by SIRJ, as well as coursework at UMD, can result in powerful tools—whether it is an envisioned master plan or data analysis—that communities can use to address these issues with stakeholders and policymakers.

“At the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to leave something tangible and meaningful behind that they can utilize immediately in terms of moving the needle and making change in their communities,” says Hendricks. “I think the work that we’re doing through the lab is a testament that you can do high-quality research and meaningful, ethical engagement–they can live and exist at the same time without sacrificing one for the other.”

For Drakeford and Kerner, it goes beyond their efforts as scholars; it is a responsibility to their communities.

“I’m so thankful to Marccus for the opportunity to bring these practical and lived experiences to bear and think about them from a research perspective, but to also turn them into something meaningful to address these community challenges,” said Drakeford. “It’s allowed me to almost redistribute this intellectual capital that I’m gaining at UMD, to the community that I’m from—and, ultimately, to give back.”


Image: Street Scene- Mr. and Mrs. Charles Murray of 3910 Allison street, North Brentwood, MD., wade to work after the night's heavy downpour flooded streets and homes in the area. Nearly 100 persons were evacuated from their homes in North Brentwood. From the Washington Star, 1995

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