New ‘chief resilience officer’ will set Maryland climate strategy

By Tim Purinton and Katie Fry Hester

On July 30, 2016, Ellicott City experienced one of the worst natural disasters in its history when flash floods brought on by an intense rainstorm poured down Main Street. The floodwaters destroyed businesses, swept away vehicles and took the lives of two people. This tragedy was considered a “1,000- year flood,” meaning a flood event so severe it has only a 0.1% chance of occurring in any given year. Just two years later, another 1,000-year flood struck, taking one more life. In the four years since these natural disasters, a coordinated local-state-federal partnership has emerged to provide more than $167 million for stormwater management and flood prevention efforts in Ellicott City. Now, the Maryland General Assembly has established a mechanism to replicate that success statewide: the Office of Resilience.

Rainfall during heavy storms in the northeastern United States — from Maryland to Maine — increased by 70% between 1958 and 2010, and climate change will continue making storms stronger and less predictable. Preparing our communities for future climate impacts and natural disasters will require complex, innovative solutions, new funding streams and an unprecedented level of coordination between state agencies, local governments, nongovernmental organizations and local communities. That’s why
creating a new Office of Resilience in the Maryland Department of Emergency Management is a critical step in the right direction.

Senate Bill 630’s passage this year in the Maryland General Assembly and signing by Gov. Larry Hogan will establish an Office of Resilience in Maryland by October of this year. Led by a new chief resilience officer (CRO), this office will coordinate climate resilience activities across state agencies and, more importantly, connect the agencies’ work with the needs of local governments, communities and businesses impacted by climate change. It will also strengthen Maryland’s competitiveness for pre-disaster
mitigation funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and identify other programs or resources that can be leveraged to support Maryland’s most at-risk communities in rural or urban environments.

This is a victory worth celebrating, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Once the new chief resilience officer is installed, they will create a resilience plan that lays out priorities and strategies for the state moving forward. There are a lot of individual tasks baked into this plan, not the least of which will be repairing, improving and, in some cases, relocating Maryland’s infrastructure so it is better equipped to handle future climate impacts.

Last year, the Environmental Defense Fund published a report that detailed best practices for new CROs based on the experiences of similar offices in other states. Adapting those practices to Maryland may mean that in Cambridge or Baltimore City, the CRO coordinates with our Department of the Environment to update flood maps for current or projected precipitation levels. On St. George’s or Kent Island, they may need to coordinate with the Department of Transportation and county governments to implement
nature-based solutions to upgrade or remove frequently flooded roadways. Increasingly saline soils on the Eastern Shore may require the CRO to work with all nine jurisdictions to support crop transitions for small farmers.

We know that climate change impacts are not distributed evenly across the landscape; the first communities to experience them are often the most overburdened, or those with the fewest resources to finance infrastructure upgrades that prevent or mitigate the damage of these events. A history of racial injustice has pushed many communities of color to the literal margins of society and frequently into places that were already unsafe before climate change exacerbated geographic or economic threats. There are already many Maryland communities — from rural areas on the Eastern Shore to urban centers like Baltimore — where flooding regularly cuts off access to vital resources like schools, grocery stores, businesses and hospitals. These communities must be actively engaged in the resilience-building process to create responsive solutions to the challenges they face.

Ellicott City celebrates its 250th anniversary this year, and the fact is that there will be more floods in Maryland’s future — be they from stronger storms, higher tides, or both. With this in mind, we can prepare ourselves to thrive during the next 250 years. Resilience is not just something we exhibit in the face of challenges, it is something we can build into our infrastructure, supply chains and daily processes. Thanks to the newly established Resilient Maryland Revolving Loan Fund, our state can leverage up to $1 billion of federal funding to make our roads, bridges and mass transit systems stronger. Now we just need to hire a chief resilience officer to lead the charge.

Tim Purinton ( is executive director of the Maryland/D.C. Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and Maryland Sen. Katie Fry Hester ( is a Democrat representing Carroll and Howard counties.