A torrent of water caused by an intense storm ripped through Ellicott City's historic downtown Saturday evening, killing two and causing massive destruction in an old mill town that could take many months to recover.
Officials from Howard and Baltimore counties confirmed Sunday that a 35-year-old woman and a 38-year-old man were swept away by the flash flooding and killed. Both were last seen in Ellicott City, in Howard County; their bodies were found about two miles down the Patapsco River in Baltimore County.
They were identified as Jessica Watsula of Lebanon, Pa., and Joseph Anthony Blevins of Windsor Mill.
Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman called the flooding a "terrible, terrible, horrific incident," and said Main Street would remain closed for the foreseeable future as officials continue to secure buildings under the around-the-clock guard of state troopers.
Gov. Larry Hogan signed a declaration of a state of emergency in Howard County, which "sets the wheels in motion for federal assistance," Kittleman said. Howard County officials are only beginning to assess the cost of the flood, including the cost of the emergency response and the amount of damage done to buildings in the historic downtown, which dates to 1772..
"It's worse than any of us expected it to be," Hogan said Sunday morning as he toured the town's Main Street, where a river of water as high as restaurant awnings had tossed cars, destroyed storefronts, gutted small shops and left massive sinkholes for blocks.
Four or five buildings on Main Street were totally destroyed, and between 20 and 30 had significant damage, officials said. About 170 cars were being towed from the area, to Centennial High School on Centennial Lane, and would be released to their owners on Monday or Tuesday.
Kittleman praised the bravery of citizens and first responders, and promised the town would recover eventually — saying local residents and shop owners "have the willpower and determination to keep on keeping on and to make Ellicott City a vibrant and wonderful community again."
Nestled along the Patapsco River with steep hillsides and rock outcroppings on all sides, Ellicott City is prone to flooding — and has a number times in recent years. But what occurred Saturday night, as visitors and locals took in late meals and popped into quaint antiques shops and art galleries, was the worst since — and maybe worse than — Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, many local residents said.
"What we're going to do, who the hell knows," said J.W. "Pete" Huey, a retiree and local resident who volunteers at the B&O Railroad Museum at the base of Main Street, not far from the town's historic flood marker that lists high-water marks of the past. "Mother Nature bats last."
Watsula, who has a 10-year-old daughter, was leaving a "paint night" with her sister-in-law and two other relatives at Portalli's Italian restaurant when a wave of water began to sweep the car away, said her brother, Curtis Brubaker. The four got out and clung to a telephone pole as the water washed over them.
Emergency swift-water rescue teams managed to save all the family members but Watsula, said Elise Armacost, a Baltimore County police spokeswoman. Her body was found about 2:20 a.m. near the bridge that carries Ilchester Road over the Patapsco.
Brubaker, who had been watching his niece, said he drove to Maryland immediately upon hearing about the flood and searched with responders for hours for his sister before identifying her body for the medical examiner. "It was an absolute disaster," he said.
Watsula was an outgoing, personable fitness devotee and an excellent mother who was inseparable from her daughter, Brubaker said.
His wife, Christina Brubaker, who suffered bruising and cuts that required stitches, did not want to talk about what happened but said Watsula "was the kind of person you could hit it off with really, really quickly" and "a great aunt, a great mom."
Blevins had been in Ellicott City with his girlfriend when the waters began to sweep their car away, Armacost said. The woman was able to get out of the vehicle, but Blevins was not.
A man hiking on a trail, also near the Ilchester bridge, spotted Blevins' body about 8:30 a.m. Sunday and notified police, Armacost said.
Blevins' family could not be reached for comment Sunday.
Residents and visitors said they witnessed several people being swept down the street in rushing water, along with their cars. They described running to upper levels in restaurants and shops, escaping out the backs to climb ladders and scale fences to get to higher ground.
Emily Frosch, 54, and her husband Mark Riddle, 68, were eating on the second floor of Portalli's when the stormed picked up. They looked out the window as the waters rose.
A car pulled up, and a woman jumped out, grabbing onto a pole as a valet parker tried to help her, Frosch said. Then the waters took the car, a man still inside.
"The car started to get swept away, and it just kept going," along with other vehicles, Frosch said. "They looked like little Matchbox cars in a bathtub."
Those in the restaurant managed to escape out the back, up onto a deck and then onto St. Paul Street, which is at a higher elevation, Frosch said.
She and her husband, both from Columbia, were back in town early Sunday to see if they could get information about their car, which also was swept away, they said.
"I couldn't sleep last night because I kept seeing that water," said Mary-Anne Mulcahy, 61, who was in Horse Spirit Arts Gallery when the flooding began. "It kept coming and coming."
Mulcahy said the water went from a trickle to a torrent in about 10 minutes, "smashing in the door and pouring in like Niagara Falls."
She and her wife, Linda Schisler, went up to the third floor with the gallery's owner to wait it out, but feared the old building would collapse. Eventually, when the flood finally stopped and the call to evacuate came, they had to climb over mud-covered furniture and other debris to escape the store, she said.
"It was horrific," she said. "It was like a war zone."
Ed Crowl, owner of Wagon Wheel Antique Shop on Tiber Alley, said he has been through Agnes and other flooding in the town, including in 2011, and was "sort of calm now, because it's happened before."
But he didn't have flood insurance on his merchandise, he said, which looked like it was a total loss from the quick peek he was able to take before being moved back to the perimeter of the scene.
"All the furniture, big tall pieces, just turned upside down," he said. "Big marbletop pieces were turned over, so it was powerful."
Hatsumi Watanabe-Smith, owner of Matcha Time Cafe, a shop selling Japanese teas, soups and sweets, said she watched helplessly as cars and trash bins floated by her shop. She had closed around 8 p.m. as the waters began to rise in the Tiber River behind her shop .
"I'm Japanese, and I have seen the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan almost five years ago," she said. "It reminds me of the tsunami. This is a disaster."
Police evacuated Watanabe-Smith, her staff and her 9-year-old nephew from the shop, after they waited three hours for the waters to subside.
At Caplan's Department Store, the walls on two sides of the store were completely blown out. Nothing recognizable remained on the main floor.
In front of one section of stores, firefighters stood in a gaping hole where the sidewalk used to be, fitting beams of lumber to support the structures.
Crews also worked to repair a ruptured water main on Main Street, wrapping up that work Sunday evening.
Ellicott City was not alone.
Saturday's flooding also hit North Baltimore, where the Jones Falls jumped its banks and swept through a parking lot at Meadow Mill, leaving behind cars stacked like toys. People were trapped in partially submerged vehicles along Interstate 83 on Saturday evening, prompting rescues, police said.
The National Weather Service had issued flash flood and severe thunderstorm warnings Saturday night for Baltimore City and parts of Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Frederick, Howard and Montgomery counties. The agency also warned of the possibility of 60-mph wind gusts that could knock down trees and branches, damaging property and blocking roads.
"This is a particularly dangerous situation," the weather service said in a bulletin. "Seek higher ground now!"
At its peak, about 9 p.m., the Patapsco River rose 14 feet in an hour and a half, according to the weather service.
Ryan Miller, Howard County's emergency chief, said the heavy rain Saturday night had overwhelmed the small watershed of the smaller Tiber and Hudson rivers that flow into the Patapsco. As the water overflowed the narrow channels, it took to Main Street.
Under a baking summer sun Sunday morning, residents throughout Ellicott City — home to more than 65,000 people — faced the aftermath, walking streets caked in mud, shoveling grime and creek pebbles and the remains of basement boxes full of memories out onto their lawns and driveways.
All roads into downtown Ellicott City were closed. Emergency responders swarmed the core business district, though the tenants and homeowners of more residential stretches of Main Street to the west were largely left to dig themselves out.
In front of Melanie Durantaye's home for the last 28 years, three vehicles — one a Howard County sheriff's patrol vehicle — were smashed together. In her backyard, her asphalt driveway was warped into buckling waves until it dropped off into a creek bed.
"That's the scary part," she said as she looked at the pavement and her flooded basement. "We don't know what we can't see."
She's survived flooding here before, including in 2011, but this was worse, she said. There used to be a bridge over the creek to the other side of Durantaye's property, and an old stone wall.
"This time it took the bridge. My car went down the river," Durantaye said. "It took the whole backyard."
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who has an office on Main Street, said he, like Hogan, was shocked by the extent of the damage.
"Not only are the buildings compromised, but the very infrastructure of the street," he said.
But also like the governor, he said he was determined to see the town rebuilt.
He urged residents and business owners to "be patient" as he and other representatives of the area are "impatient" on their behalf — "trying to get every dime we can get" from every level of government to assist them in their recovery.
Cummings also praised the first responders, the residents and the business community for their resilience in the past and in the days to come.
"This is the America, and the Maryland, I know," he said.
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Pamela Wood, Colin Campbell, Sean Welsh, Yvonne Wenger, Scott Dance, Fatimah Waseem and Andrew Michaels contributed to this article.
An earlier version of this article misidentified the relationship between Jessica Watsula and two of the flood survivors. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.
How to help
•A food bank will open at 8 a.m. at the Community Action Council of Howard County.
•Donations for merchants and residents: www.HelpEllicottCity.com
•A Recovery and Information Session for those affected by the storm will be held Monday at 4:30 p.m. at the Ellicott City 50+ Center
•Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman urged a delay in donations of construction supplies because officials do not know yet what will be needed.