Recovery

The Day After Ellicott City Flood, Locals Reckon With Damage: 'We Can't Let This Community Die'

Should Ellicott City, founded in 1772, devastated by floods in 2016 and now again in 2018, try to rebuild again?

by Kevin Rector and Pamela Wood, The Baltimore Sun / May 29, 2018
Water rushes through Main Street in Ellicott City, Md., Sunday, May 27, 2018. Flash flooding and water rescues are being reported in Maryland as heavy rain soaks much of the state. AP/Kenneth K. Lam

(TNS) - Residents, merchants and officials in Ellicott City on Monday began to examine the devastation wrought by the floods that coursed through the historic mill town the night before, for the second time in less than two years.

Old Ellicott City’s Main Street remained blocked off Monday as crews inspected buildings. Police were searching for a Maryland National Guardsman who was reported missing during the flooding Sunday. Cars lay on their sides or upside down in streams and along the road. A crane tow truck was brought in to lift them out. Utility workers began to restore power, fix a broken water line and bypass a broken sewer pipe.

Amid the immediate recovery efforts on Monday, the question was inescapable: Should Ellicott City, founded in 1772, devastated by floods in 2016 and now again in 2018, try to rebuild again?

Restaurateur Michel Tersiguel said he knew immediately that he would reopen Tersiguel's French Country Restaurant, a longtime destination restaurant for special occasions and French class field trips. He was on the phone with a contractor Sunday night.

“Time to rebuild, that’s it,” Tersiguel said. “It’s no question for us. We rebuilt the building last time, so that helped. … Our plan is to get at it as soon as the county lets us in.”

Nathan Sowers, owner of River House Pizza Co., said he wasn’t sure whether he will reopen.

“It’s an eight-month season,” he said, and the peak tourist time is just beginning. “The sun shines, you make hay. Now is when you need to be doing it.

“We just have to see if the numbers work.”

Sowers said the calculation for business owners will come down to how quickly the county can fix infrastructure and reopen access to the historic district.

“You can get up and get going,” he said, “but you need people to be able to get in.”

After the flood of July 2016, Main Street was closed to traffic for about two and a half months.

Howard County Police Chief Gary Gardner said Monday that Main Street would remain closed until officials could set up a credentialing program to allow residents and merchants into buildings once it’s deemed safe to do so. Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman signed an executive order Monday restricting access to some areas affected by the flooding. Under the order, buildings on Main Street are closed to everyone except emergency workers or others authorized by the county.

Officials said the Circuit Court for Howard County would be closed Tuesday. A Howard school spokesman said Monday that employees were inspecting buildings. The district expected all schools to open on time Tuesday.

Sunday night’s storms dumped several inches of rain, sending the Hudson and Tiber tributaries over their banks as the water rushed toward the Patapsco River. Emergency crews responded to 1,100 calls to 911 in the county and about 300 water rescues. Gov. Larry Hogan issued a state of emergency.

Residents, workers and visitors scrambled to safety during the flood. Rescue crews continued to look for 39-year-old Eddison Hermond of Severn, who went under the water and never resurfaced.

Hermond, a sergeant in the Maryland National Guard and a server, bartender and manager at Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia, was last seen at 5:20 p.m. Sunday near La Palapa restaurant on Main Street, police said. They were using dogs to help look in buildings and cars.

Many recalled the flood of July 30, 2016, that scarred the historic district and left two people dead. Kittleman said the damage appears to be worse this time.

“It’s devastating for all of us,” he said.

Kittleman, a Republican, said residents and business owners now have tough decisions to make. He said the county would support businesses, whether they decide to rebuild or to move on.

Jeff Braswell, owner of several properties on Main Street, including the retail businesses Primitive Beginnings and Jaxon Edwin and the e-commerce company Clockwork Synergy, said Monday he wanted to rebuild. But he hadn’t seen the damage yet.

He said not everyone will return, which will hurt those who do.

“It’s not just about us. It’s about the whole town, because we need each other,” Braswell said. “If you don’t have your coffee shops and restaurants, why are you going to come down to shop?”

Rick Winter is a partner in Ellicott Mills Brewing Co.

“Here we are. We have every intention of fixing it again, just like we did last time,” he said. “But it’s a question of the town itself. … Until they get the infrastructure in the town reopened, it doesn’t make much sense reopening.”

Winter went to his restaurant Monday morning hoping to pump out the basement, but officials weren’t letting anyone inside. The longer it takes before he can start cleanup, he said, the more problems he’ll have. In 2016, he had to hire a special crew to remove rancid food.

“Last time it was a week before we could pump the water out, and that was not good,” Winter said. “It completely changed the complexion of the cleanup.”

Winter said Monday was “a day of frustration.”

“To come back from a flood is an accomplishment,” he said. “To come back from two? A lot harder.”

Winter’s plumber, John Hommerbocker, repaired the 1905 building two years ago. Two months ago, he said, they refilled a gap around the foundation that had washed out in 2016. The gap was near a culvert that cuts under the building.

Hommerbocker said the county fortified the culvert after the 2016 flood. He wondered how much of that work survived this time.

The original planners of Old Ellicott City get maligned today, Hommerbocker said, but they did a great job planning the culvert system that carries streams through the town.

“What they didn’t figure on was all the concrete and impervious surfaces from all the new developments uphill,” he said.

Hommerbocker blames “40 years of poor planning” for the impact of the two floods.

“No matter what, that stream is only so big,” he said. “It worked perfectly for 100 years, before all the impervious surfaces were added uphill.”

Developers submitted more than 100 proposals to build homes, shopping centers and other buildings in less than 3 square miles around Ellicott City between 2001 and 2016, and most were approved. Twenty-eight percent of the watershed of the Tiber and Hudson tributaries is covered by hard surfaces such as roads, driveways and rooftops.

Kittleman declined to answer questions Monday about whether the county has permitted too much development in the land that surrounds Main Street.

“We have plenty of time to address those issues,” Kittleman said. “Right now, we’re talking about people’s lives. … We can talk about that later.”

Kittleman said he believed the county and town were as prepared as possible for the flood.

The county has been rebuilding and clearing stream channels and preparing for more upstream stormwater control projects. Property owners have rebuilt with the possibility of flooding in mind.

“They’ve done everything in their power they can to improve themselves and their businesses,” Kittleman said.

But when so much rain falls in just a few hours, “terrible things happen,” he said.

Residents of the historic town were assessing the damage, too.

Loretta and Tim Moran, who live in the heart of Main Street, had just returned home Sunday from their son Timmy’s wedding at Deep Creek Lake when the waters began rising.

“By the time we made it across the street, the water had gone from our ankles to our kneecaps,” Loretta Moran said.

The Morans gathered some of their tenants, went upstairs and out onto the back deck where they scaled the hill to Church Street with the help of a Marine Corps veteran.

As the couple evacuated, Loretta Moran said, she called their son and told him where her will was stored.

“I don’t know if we’re going to make it out of this one,” Loretta Moran told her son.

The Morans hadn’t unpacked their cars from the wedding, and they didn’t know where the cars were. On Monday, they visited a pharmacy getting refills for Tim Moran’s medicine that was packed away.

After the 2016 flood, the Morans remodeled their kitchen to fix flood damage.

“It was the whole thing all over again,” Loretta Moran said.

Moran said she’s not sure what’s next.

“Our heart was really in Old Ellicott City,” she said. “We love that town.”

Timmy Moran said he’s frustrated with the county’s response.

“Let’s talk about the people in those homes trying to get out with no plan. They couldn’t leave,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be a real evacuation plan.”

Deedee Lancelotta has lived in an 1889 home overlooking Old Ellicott City for more than 20 years. A 150-year-old silver maple tree toppled in her front yard. Many of her friends and neighbors lost more, she said.

Lancelotta spent all night calling friends to check on them and calling 911 to put elderly friends’ names on an evacuation list.

Her home overlooks the Tiber tributary. She said it was “like an ocean” Sunday, with a current that spun cars that smacked into a home down the hill.

“We can’t let this community die,” she said. “We can’t. There’s got to be something that can be done.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

pwood@baltsun.com

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