Charlene Townsend was drinking Pepto-Bismol again.
When the rains returned to Ellicott City last week, so did the trickle of water in the back of Townsend’s Main Street shop.
This time, there wasn’t anything to soak but the floorboards. Townsend took the antique store down to the studs after the flood in May that devastated much of the historic enclave. She’s been deliberating since then about whether to reopen Maxine’s Antiques & Collectibles, and the rains weren’t making a decision any easier.
Hence, the pink bottle.
“I had to medicate myself this morning,” Townsend said. “I was crying. I can’t deal with it.”
Days of rain and flood warnings, and forecasts of more to come, are complicating the decisions of homeowners, residents and businesses in downtown Ellicott City. The district, built on the Patapsco and Tiber rivers, has been hit by two catastrophic floods in less than two years. The July 2016 deluge left two dead and caused millions of dollars of damage. The community was still recovering from that flood when it flooded again in May, causing another death and similar damage.
More than 60 businesses have committed to coming back, and 38 have reopened, according to the nonprofit Ellicott City Partnership. Several others say they will not rebuild.
It’s unclear whether the rains of the last week will tilt the equation for those merchants, like Townsend, who are still undecided. The downpour came just days after the state of emergency from the May flood was lifted and Main Street reopened.
The rains, while heavy, did not fall quickly or enough to cause the rivers to breach their banks. But they soaked the community again, causing minor flooding in already damaged buildings, slowing repairs along the heavily boarded Main Street, and giving everyone pause.
“Whenever we see the forecast of substantial rain, everyone in Ellicott City, especially along Main Street, we all get nervous,” Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman said. “What I tell the business owners is: You need to make decisions for yourselves and your families and whatever you decide, I’ll do anything in my power to help you.”
David Reyes, owner of Reyes Jewelry Exchange a few doors down from Townsend, is planning to stay — and wants a robust community around him. He’s been encouraging his neighbors with words and hard labor. He recently hauled 10 50-pound bags of cement up the stairs in Townsend’s building to fill a large hole where water had flowed in unabated — a step he hoped would help shore up her structure and persuade her to return.
“I’m trying to keep things positive,” said Reyes, who reopened weeks ago. With a door and windows several feet off the ground, he was spared the worst of the May flooding, but he suspected the rain was infiltrating his back room. He decided not to immediately look.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t concerned every time it rains.
“The Tiber and all the canals and underground water conduits, they were all filled up yesterday, maxed out,” he said Tuesday. “It doesn't take much to flood, and it happens in a moment.”
County officials say they will send out alerts at the first sign of danger. On Wednesday evening, they used bullhorns and social media to ask people to evacuate in case of a flash flood that ultimately didn’t come to pass.
Evan Brown, owner of Portalli’s across from Maxine’s, has learned to interpret the weather himself. The first couple of inches of rain this week would be enough to flood the basement of Brown’s Catonsville home, he said, but not his Ellicott City restaurant.
“Six inches of rain in 90 minutes seems to be the magic number when things start to crumble,” he said.
His restaurant remains boarded for now, but Brown says he will reopen. He got his building permit last week. He and others said they have heard from regular customers, offering support and encouragement.
Some customers say they are making an effort to visit those places that are able to operate. On Tuesday in between heavy downpours, Winnie Carpenter stopped by Syriana Cafe & Gallery to pick up some Middle Eastern takeout for her mother.
She said it was her eighth visit in the past few weeks.
“I live nearby and they’re open and they’re good,” Carpenter said. “I’d like to see them stay and others come back.”
The mud that marred Syriana in the May flood was scrubbed away within days. The owners have deployed a couple of buckets by the front window to catch the drips that found their way inside during last week’s constant rain.
Co-owner Majd AlGhatrif said the reopening of Main Street on July 20 was a good day, “with people walking up and down the street.”
Then the rains came, slowed business and gave him “a bit of a post-traumatic effect.”
His wife, Rasha Obaid, says they have been open only for lunch, but are preparing to extend hours through dinnertime in response to demand.
Still, she agreed, rain “makes me anxious.”
Kelli Myers, owner of two Ellicott City businesses, A Journey from Junk and Junk Girl, says she’s avoided thinking about the weather’s effect on Ellicott City by staying at her home in Pikesville and tending to water in the basement there.
She has just begun to plot her return but says she doesn’t blame others for deciding against rebuilding their businesses. She says she lost everything in the May flood, and is still paying for merchandise that was ruined.
But she believes her “best bet” is to come back — and hopes her customers do, too.
“We can’t turn Main Street into a ghost town,” she said. In the long run, she thinks customers, not Mother Nature, will decide whether businesses survive.
Denee Barr and Kay Weeks say rain will not deter them from visiting businesses. They have been going regularly to The Trolley Stop.
“They have wonderful breakfast and we love supporting the local family business,” said Barr, who lives in Columbia. “It’s just a nice cozy atmosphere in here. We consider it a blessing to be able to come.”
Weeks, who lives near Main Street, says she regularly takes people there.
Businesses say they are counting not only on customers, but also on government spending. They want the county to pay for the infrastructure repairs and upgrades that consultants say are necessary for a safe and viable commercial district.
Engineers commissioned by Howard County after the 2016 flood recommended $35 million in immediate improvements for flood control ponds and other work and an additional $60 million to $85 million in long-term mitigation.
Officials say they have been working on it since the 2016 flood. Kittleman recently announced $18 million in work to slow the flow of water and reduce the likelihood of another flash flood.
But Kittleman told The Baltimore Sun the most extensive repairs and mitigation will take time to develop, design and fund. He can’t promise there won’t be more flooding in the meantime, he said, because big, damaging storms now strike more frequently, and the historic buildings were never built to withstand flooding.
He said modern development that prevents water absorption hasn’t helped. But he noted that no significant damage has been reported from the recent rains.
Kittleman said that the help the county could provide could include working with businesses to find new space elsewhere in the county or perhaps even buying some of the damaged properties.
Some business owners say they have already worked to mitigate damage to their buildings.
Randy Mariner, owner of Manor Hill Tavern on Old Columbia Pike, joined with several others on waterproofing and diverting stormwater from the backs of their structures. The tavern reopened July 16 and has withstood the recent rains.
Mariner said his building still could flood, and he’s counting on bigger public repairs. But he’s choosing not to focus solely on “every drop” of rain.
“Anytime you see lightning there is nervousness,” he said. “Clearly something needs to change, and I believe the county is working really hard. … But I’m very supportive. I’m not a proponent of walking away.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Lorraine Mirabella contributed to this article.