As visitors from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka stood in a circle Wednesday in a clothing boutique in historic Ellicott City, they looked to shop owner Tammy Beideman for advice on surviving a natural disaster.
The seven-member delegation from South and Central Asia — citizens of countries at risk for such calamities as earthquakes and cyclones — included a state emergency operations director from India, the director of a green school in Nepal, an urban planner and disaster management specialist from Mumbai and the deputy director of a television network in India.
They wanted to know how Beideman, the 2018 Maryland Small Business Person of the Year and owner of Sweet Elizabeth Jane, had brought her store back from the brink of ruin in the wake of the 2016 flash flood that nearly decimated the Main Street business district.
In turn, the business owner — whose merchandise, store fixtures, computers and business records were washed out of the store by raging floodwaters and never recovered — shared her firsthand experience with staging a comeback.
The international visitors came to Ellicott City as part of a program arranged for the U.S. Department of State.
Before visiting the shop Wednesday, they had seen dramatic online video of the raging river Main Street had become after 6 inches of rain fell in less than two hours and flooded businesses, ripping up pavement, sweeping cars into the Patapsco River and claiming two lives.
Yet people gasped in near-disbelief as Beideman explained how quickly the floodwaters rose through the floorboards to the second-floor window of her shop, which was then located at the midpoint of the business district. The store has since relocated to higher ground in a building at the top of Main Street.
The group listened as their host described the panic and helplessness she felt while making sure her employees got to safety; she was in Washington when the flooding occurred and had been unaware of the localized downpour engulfing the area until she got a phone call.
“I knew I had to pull it together,” Beideman said. “It was like a bad dream.”
Garrett Glover, a retail and restaurant specialist with the Maryland Small Business Development Center in College Park, held up enlarged photos of Main Street that were taken in the flood’s aftermath as Beideman spoke.
Glover told the gathering that the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development responded to the disaster by offering business owners loan packages of up to $50,000 with zero interest.
“It was the best thing they could do to get Main Street businesses back on their feet,” he said. “This was an emergency, and you’ve got to bend the rules.”
Beideman next zeroed in on the benefits of having agencies gathered in one place the next morning to make the process of applying for their services run more smoothly, an arrangement Glover said was facilitated by the Howard County Economic Development Authority.
“I couldn’t have made it without the disaster assistance center,” Beideman said.
Glover, who represented one of the many agencies stationed at the center, told the visitors that he had initially approached 125 Main Street businesses and ending up working with 50 of them on a three-pronged plan for relief, recovery and revitalization.
“Garrett’s name is synonymous with recovery,” Beideman told the group.
Though that program’s funding ran out, Glover said after the meeting that he’s still working with 30 business owners because the Small Business Development Center decided their efforts had produced such positive outcomes that it shouldn’t be curtailed.
Sekhar Kuriakose, who heads the emergency operations center for the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority in India, said after the discussion that Beideman’s story was “really, really inspiring.”
“What caught my attention was how the local community invests in bringing [the businesses] back and focuses on individual needs,” Kuriakose said. “It’s an interesting approach for local agencies to take the initiative.”
Glover said afterward that what earned Beideman the small businessperson award was “her discipline and commitment in taking advantage of the available resources and leveraging those resources.”
Beideman’s journey “is an important lesson for our visitors to take back,” he said.
The agenda for the visit — labeled Building Regional Resilience to Environmental Challenges — was coordinated by the World Trade Center Institute for the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, said an institute spokesperson, Leslie Rankin.
The Baltimore-based nonprofit designs exchange programs for foreign professionals from around the world, among other projects, Rankin said, attracting 700 participants to Maryland each year.
In meetings later the same day, the delegation planned to discuss with leaders of the One EC Recovery Project how community-based programs operated in tandem with government agencies to facilitate Main Street’s recovery, Rankin said.
They also learned about strategies being put into place to better prepare the recovering Ellicott City historic district for future weather events in a meeting with County Executive Allan H. Kittleman and Ryan Miller, the director of the county’s office of emergency management.
After visiting Ellicott City, the delegates were scheduled to also travel to Concord, Mass., Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico; and San Francisco.