Historic Ellicott City faces long recovery after flooding

FOX 5's Marina Marraco and Tisha Lewis report.

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. (AP) — The picturesque main street of Ellicott City — quaint with brightly colored storefronts — was in shambles Monday, two days after a catastrophic storm ripped through town, shattering glass windows, swallowing cars, demolishing structures and devouring their foundations.

Severely damaged were antique shops, restaurants, a toy store and a beloved bar steps from the Patapsco River that local officials say opened their doors to feed rescue crews who responded to a fatal train derailment, the small city's last disaster.

This disaster though, was different: The magnitude of the storm threatened to wash away the historic boulevard, leaving behind waterlogged remnants of what stood there before.

The storm claimed the lives of two visitors, Jessica Watsula and Joseph Blevins, whose cars were swept into the Patapsco River's raging waters.


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As the rain fell and the waters rose, residents rushed into harm's way to rescue each other. One group formed a human chain to save a trapped motorist; Jonathan Butkus, 37, raced into the waist-deep water and carried a teenager out of a car on his shoulders.

"It was the scariest thing I've ever seen in my entire life," he said. "On Sunday, I woke up shaking. We could have all died. It was like Armageddon."

VICTIMS Kevin McCarthy

Jessica Watsula, 35, of the 2600 block of E. Cumberland St., Lebanon, PA | Visiting Ellicott City when the flash flood occurred | Vehicle was swept away | Body found about 200 yards from the Ilchester Bridge

Joseph Anthony Blevins, 38, of 7800 block of Paddock Way, Windsor Mill | Vehicle was swept away with Blevins and girlfriend inside | Body washed up on shore near Ilchester Road

Butkus lives on Main Street, above a carpet shop, and said at about 7:30 p.m. on Saturday water began rushing through his back door with alarming force. When he went downstairs, he found the streets flooded. Cars, he said, "were like napkins blowing in the wind."

When he noticed a teenager stuck in a car he immediately jumped into the water and raced toward him.

"It was a fight or flight situation, I didn't even think about it." As he ran back across the street debris was rushing toward them, he said. "It was like a warzone."

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan toured the damaged area Sunday along with Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman and U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, who has an office in the town. Hogan declared a state of emergency, which will allow greater aid coordination and assistance.

"No one has ever seen devastation like this in Ellicott City or anywhere in Howard County," Kittleman said. "There are a lot of businesses that are going to be hurting for a long time. There are a lot of people that lost their apartments and their homes."

On Monday construction crews crowded Main Street, which slopes sharply toward the river, using cranes to clear debris. A tree had fallen directly into one store, bisecting it. A hair salon's display window remained intact, with rows of shampoos and conditioners and a sign advertising ammonia-free hair color. But below the floorboards, its foundation had been entirely demolished.

The sign hanging above Joan Eve Classics and Collectibles antique shop was in pristine condition, but the shop itself had been ripped apart; on Monday, a giant slab of brick lay across a chunk of concrete, the entryway and walls crumbled to the ground. Just outside, a massive hole had opened up in the sidewalk. Three colorful bird and butterfly mobiles hung from the rafters outside of the Forget Me Not Factory hobby shop down the street, where a cherubic fairy with pink, purple and mint green wings clutched a magic wand on its painted sign. But the doors were flung open to expose a mud-caked floor and the shop's contents toppled, broken and strewn across the store.

Johnny Breidenbach, the owner and chef of Johnny's Bistro on Main, said he closed his restaurant around 7:30 Saturday night, before the worst of the flooding, and he hadn't been able to get back there to assess the damage.

"They told me that the door was totally ripped away from the hinges, and I don't know how much water I have inside," Breidenbach told The AP by phone Sunday.

He said Ellicott City would recover eventually, but some business owners may not be able to wait long enough to reopen.

"I could be one of those people," he said.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski toured the affected area on Monday and said she and Hogan are working together to apply for federal funds for individuals, business and the local government. The acts of bravery during the storm, she said, "took my breath away."

Ellicott City was established in 1772 as a mill town along the Patapsco, and many 18th and 19th-Century buildings were still intact before Saturday's floods. Once a home to mill workers, in recent decades it has become known for restaurants, art galleries, antique shops and nightlife. Main Street slopes dramatically toward the river and has long been susceptible to flooding.

Kittleman did not say how many of the businesses had flood insurance, but Megan Clark, who owns a toy store on Main Street, said she decided against purchasing a policy because it would have cost her $300 a month.

"Flood insurance was just insane down here," she said. "Fifty percent of the owners probably didn't have insurance, so it's going to be left to whatever we can come up with together to help everyone get back in their stores."

Ed McDonough, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said officials won't have a comprehensive damage estimate until building inspectors say damaged structures are stable enough for closer examination.

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