Ellicott City flood began with a deluge and ended in death, but also resolve

A record deluge washes away much of Ellicott City's Main Street, but not its heart.

In the clouds and on the ground, Saturday, July 30, began unremarkably for a summer day in the Mid-Atlantic.

"The air mass over the region was laden with a lot of moisture, which is fairly typical for this time of year," said Steve Zubrick, science and operations officer for the National Weather Service's Baltimore-Washington office. "We also had instability in the atmosphere that favored thunderstorms."

As meteorologists monitored radar screens and forecasting models, the weekend was well underway with farmers' markets, errands and playing Pokemon Go.

Joe Blevins wanted to join the hunt in an area reportedly filled with the virtual creatures — Main Street in Ellicott City. He and his girlfriend, Heather Owens, had left a matinee at a movie theater in Laurel and were heading home to Windsor Mill. With a roll of her eyes, she agreed to stop in the city's historic district.

It was raining when they pulled into a parking lot off Main Street around 7:30 p.m., and they sat in the car to wait out what they expected to be a short downpour. They didn't know that the weather service had issued a flash flood warning for much of Central Maryland about 12 minutes earlier.

Unlike hurricanes or winter storms, flash floods don't give much warning, and it's difficult to pinpoint where they might strike hardest, Zubrick said. A number of weather conditions had been brewing, combining in such a way that the clouds unleashed a veritable deluge on the low-lying town.

"Toward 7:30, 8 o'clock," he said, "the whole area blew up."

As Zubrick and his fellow meteorologists watched this mayhem at the atmospheric level on multiple screens in their Sterling, Va., offices, they also began seeing videos on social media and getting reports from trained weather spotters in Ellicott City. The weather scientists have a term for this real-life confirmation of their meteorological data.

They call it "ground truth."

River rose 14 feet

Jessica Lynn Watsula, a 35-year-old mother who lived in Lebanon, Pa., had gone to Portalli's in Ellicott City that night with three women for a girls' night out. She was buried on Friday.

The family and friends of Joseph Anthony Blevins, 38, head of the University of Baltimore's financial aid office, will gather for his funeral on Monday.

The two were swept away by raging waters that coursed through Ellicott City's historic district when 61/2 inches of rain fell in about two hours. A confluence of meteorological and geographical factors turned this hard summer rain into a destructive torrent.

The most intense rain fell over an area upstream of the Patapsco River, Zubrick said, and three channels combined to propel the water toward it: two tributaries, the Hudson and the Tiber, as well as Main Street itself. In less than two hours, the river rose 14 feet above its normal flow, he said.

Shops and restaurants that line Main were swamped and flooded as water rushed down the street and rose underneath it — the Tiber, usually just an inch or two of water running through a reinforced channel below some of the buildings, swelled during the storm, Zubrick said.

"It smashed through the floor, smashing everything away," said Zubrick, who toured the damage two days after the flood and cameaway "humbled" by the level of devastation.

A section of the hardest-hit area remains off-limits to all but those working to assess the damage. Last week, Howard County officials began escorting business owners and residents into the area to get a first-hand look at their properties and retrieve some belongings, but are not hazarding a guess when they might be able to return.

"I didn't realize how much damage there was until I saw it in the daytime," said Bob McCanley, 59, who was evacuated that night and returned briefly on Thursday to his apartment above a store on the 8200 block of Main Street.

Indeed, two buildings on the 8100 block are on the verge of collapse and will have to be demolished.. Crews have been working to retrieve about 200 cars that were carried away, some into the Patapsco, as their owners search the lot of Centennial High School, where many of them were towed.

Susan and Gerald Nestadt learned recently that their new car, which replaced one they lost in a Fells Point flood earlier in the year, was found in the river. The Federal Hill residents fled Portalli's with other customers from the restaurant's third floor to higher ground. But even that night, Susan Nestadt says, she was keenly aware they were not the real victims of the storm.

"We have insurance," said Susan Nestadt, 62, who with her brother runs a family foundation that supports social justice causes. "What was most devastating to me was standing in the rain, and speaking to the kitchen staff and realizing they were all out of jobs now."

'Something's wrong'

Heather Owens, 32, and her identical twin, Holly, had been texting and talking on Saturday. Heather told her about the "Star Trek" movie she and Joe had just seen, and how her boyfriend of five years wanted to stop in Ellicott City.

Holly was at their mother's house on Cobb Island in Southern Maryland, floating in the swimming pool in the early evening. As she watched the clouds, the way they were moving disturbed her, and she got one of those indefinable twin feelings.

"Something's wrong," she said to herself.

Her sister and Blevins, after realizing the rain was not going to let up, had decided to go home. They pulled back onto Main Street, and within five minutes, their car began floating, Heather Owens said.

It struck a guardrail and plunged into the swollen Patapsco River. Owens was able to get out the passenger side window, and thinks she grabbed something, perhaps a branch of a tree on the river bank, as the current pulled her downstream.

She looked for Blevins, and saw him in the river, gasping for air and reaching in vain for something to hold on to.

She scrambled up the rocky bank onto nearby railroad tracks, heading toward houses on higher ground to get help. The rushing waters had torn her pants and shoes off.

Ashley Jennings and Henri Sanders, a bartender and DJ at the nearby Phoenix Emporium, were walking to ask a friend to take in the customers they had left upstairs at the bar as the waters seeped in.

"We were in hip-high water, and we saw her coming out of the darkness," Jennings, 29, said of Owens. "She was bleeding and white as a ghost."

"Can you go help find my boyfriend?" Sanders remembers her asking.

They took her to their friends' house on Mulligans Hill Lane, and returned to the river, shining a flashlight and calling out for Blevins. Eventually, first responders came and took up the search, unsuccessfully.

His body would not be found until Sunday morning, downriver about two miles away.

One afternoon this week, as her sister and mother hovered protectively around her, Owens busied herself in the townhouse she had shared with Blevins. It backs up to Patapsco Valley State Park, which surrounds another stretch of the winding river.

At some point in the ordeal, she had fractured her jaw, which has been wired together. Still, she feels compelled to talk about Blevins to anyone who asks.

She said they met about 10 years ago, when they both worked at the University of Maryland University College and played on a softball team together. She worked at UB with him until recently, when she took a job as a software specialist in Towson University bursar's office.

Blevins was devoted to his three kids, who range in age from 5 to almost 17, and she has grown to love them as well. They liked to travel, and earlier this year went with Holly and a friend to several European countries on a Groupon deal.

"I feel like people should know his story," Owens said.

Swept away

The rain began falling around 6:45 p.m., and soon started coming down in breathtaking intensity. The weather service says the heaviest downpour came between 7:45 p.m. and 8 p.m. More than 2 inches fell during this time.

On a Saturday night on a street filled with bars and restaurants, this was when many were coming and going. The weather service's flash flood alert had set off everyone's cellphone. Often in the past, those warnings hadn't presaged much.

But what happened next bound them all in one or way or another.

The Nestadts had left their car with the valet at Portalli's and walked to a table upstairs, passing a group of about 20 women at a dine-and-paint event on the first floor. Later, as the rain intensified, they stared out the windows in horror as parked cars started to roll down the street and people began grabbing telephone poles, holding on as the sudden rush of water took their feet off the ground.

"We saw a woman desperately trying to open the door of a restaurant across the street. Everyone at that restaurant was also upstairs, and we tried to open our window to shout over to them to let her in," Nestadt said. Eventually, someone did manage to get that door open for the woman.

Jessica Watsula, along with her brother's wife, Christina Brubaker, and Brubaker's mother and sister, had left as the storm was worsening. They had been part of the painting group at Portalli's.

Watsula's brother, Curtis Brubaker Jr., told The Baltimore Sun that his wife, who wasn't ready to speak publicly about the tragic night, told him that all four of the women clung to a telephone pole as the water rose higher and higher around them. Watsula was pulled away from them by the current, he said.

After getting a call from his wife, Brubaker, who had been baby-sitting his sister's 10-year-old daughter, began driving from Pennsylvania to Ellicott City to search for Watsula. Her body would not be found until 2 a.m. the next morning.

Meanwhile, Portalli's manager hustled his customers out a back entrance to the third floor, which led to a higher street, St. Paul's. A Portalli's employee told some of the stranded diners they were welcome to go to his house on the higher ground of Mulligans Hill Lane.

Jennings and Sanders, from the Phoenix Emporium, soon showed up there, with Heather Owens.

Kristin Shields, the Portalli's employee's roommate, found Owens some dry clothes and flip flops, called 911 and while awaiting the paramedics, helped tend to her swollen jaw and multiple cuts and scrapes.

"It was the least I could do," said Shields, 25. "My heart was just breaking for her."

A UB law student, she realized she had once talked to Blevins, who had worked at the school since 2008. Similarly, Jennings and Sanders realized their co-workers knew Blevins.

When medics arrived later in the night, they took Owens in an ambulance to Howard County General Hospital. Also riding in the ambulance, Owens said, were Watsula's relatives.

The following morning, Owens was transferred to Johns Hopkins Hospital. It was there that a Baltimore County police corporal, through his own tears, told her that Blevins had died, her family said.

Since then, she wavers between falling apart and focusing on necessary tasks, such as funeral arrangements. She always thought of Blevins as the strong one, and can only point to something that ran through her head during the flood that helped her survive.

"I thought," Owens said, "I cannot let my family get a phone call that I'm dead."

jmarbella@baltsun.com

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