A year after the flood, Ellicott City residents reflect on recovery and community

Jason Crebs was in his walkout basement apartment on Main Street in Ellicott City July 30 when a nearby stream turned into a river, pushing foot after foot of water against his glass doors. As water seeped into the apartment — to his ankles, then his waist, then seven feet high — he grabbed his cat off the floating bed, stuck his fiancee's engagement ring on his pinky, dove under the water to yank the door open and swam to safety.

Old Ellicott City is well-known as a walkable shopping district, drawing visitors with an eclectic mix of small businesses. But it is also a town of residents, many with harrowing stories from the night of the flood, whose lives were uprooted in the weeks and months afterward.

County officials said that 71 households were displaced as a result of last year's flash flood, which raged through the historic mill town when more than six inches of rain fell in about two hours, killing two people and devastating residences and businesses.

One year later, 51 households have returned, county officials said.

Some buildings that residents lived in were deemed structurally unsafe. Others had minimal damage but were inside a no-access evacuation zone so strict that residents said they had trouble at first retrieving their pets. Some residents, like Crebs, lost thousands of dollars in property. Many residents' cars were swept away, and those who worked on Main Street lost their jobs as well as their homes. Many spent days cleaning water-damaged property or calling utility companies.

"If you met me at the time, I was dirty and delirious and sleep-deprived and wearing the same two shirts," Crebs said.

For some, coming back to the historic district meant months of waiting, living in parents' basements or in temporary emergency housing. The earliest returnees moved back into apartments surrounded by closed-off streets, boarded-up shops and the daily clamor of construction.

"It was eerie," Alex Olson, who moved back into her apartment on Main Street around six weeks after the flood, said of her return. She described showing a badge to police officers each day to enter the flood zone, walking to her apartment on a street that was "completely silent."

Residents, however, said they were determined to return despite the challenges.

"People are really connected to Old Ellicott City," explained Sheila Murphy, who lived in the area for seven years before buying a home nearby in May. "It's a really special place to live."

John Beck, who has rented in the historic district for 45 years, said it often seems like people forget Old Ellicott City is not only a business district, but a residential community with apartments above nearly every shop.

"A lot of people that come into town think of Ellicott City as like a theme park," Beck said.

Out of the homes in the historic district affected by the flood, 58 percent are renter-occupied, according to the county executive's office — more than double the 26 percent of units that are renter-occupied in Howard County as a whole.

Beck and Murphy both said the town attracts young residents with its atmosphere and affordable rent.

"It's bohemian, in a way," said Beck, who remembers young people being drawn to the area as early as the 1970s. "It's out of the ordinary, it's off the beaten track. It's funky."

The disproportionate number of young people living in the floodplain meant that many were displaced during life milestones, starting marriages or families, and forced to live in someone else's home.

Sydney and Chuck Knower, who rented an apartment above Still Life Gallery, were on a plane home from their honeymoon when the flood hit. The couple spent the first months of their marriage living with Sydney Knower's mother, before finding an apartment in March in preparation for their first child, born last month.

"It was definitely not how we envisioned married life," Knower said, saying that while her mother was an "amazing help" to the couple, "it was hard to feel like married adults living with a parent."

Crebs, who escaped his flooded apartment with his fiancee's engagement ring, said that a year later the couple is still displaced, living in his parents' basement. They were married in June.

Murphy, who married her husband, Dan, shortly before the flood, said they stayed with her mother up the road for the first days after. Their apartment on Saint Paul Street was not damaged, but Murphy said county officials did not know at first whether their home was safe to access.

Although the apartment had no power or water for weeks, Murphy said the couple wanted to move home so badly that after a few days they "camped" in the sweltering apartment.

After the flood, county officials helped residents and businesses who were displaced with emergency housing, insurance and utilities. The county and the Maryland housing department provided rental assistance and temporary housing in nearby apartment complexes. The Red Cross and the Ellicott City Partnership provided funds for residents to purchase immediate needs like food and clothing, a service that residents praised.

"For renters, it was mostly getting their personal belongings and making sure there was a place for them that was livable," County Executive Allan Kittleman said. He said his office emphasized helping homeowners shoulder the cost of repairs, adding that he made an effort to listen to residents' needs after the flood by doing nightly community walk-throughs and creating a "constituent service area" in his office dedicated to speaking with residents.

To help guide recovery efforts, the county established a Community Advisory Group in August, intended to allow a cross-section of the community to provide recommendations. Their final report was released in February. Kittleman's office estimated there were four or five residents of the historic district named to the group. To their knowledge, however, none were renters.

Multiple residents said that, though they felt county officials were doing their best in a fast-moving emergency situation, renters' concerns felt second to those of business and property owners.

The county set up a "Disaster Assistance Center," a central place for those affected by the flood to access resources. While some residents found the center helpful, others said it did not seem geared toward their needs.

"I just found that a lot of the resources didn't really address the needs my husband and I had personally," Knower said. "I felt like the center was more useful for business owners and people who needed help relocating." She said the couple would have benefited from help with dealing with insurance, closing accounts associated with their address and replacing what they lost in the flood.

"The very first half of [town meetings] was always about the business owners and building owners," Murphy said. "The renters, I don't think they really got a lot of answers in the beginning."

In the first days after the flood, officials escorted some business and property owners into the evacuation zone, allowing them only 10 minutes to retrieve items or secure valuables because of safety concerns. County press secretary Andy Barth said they chose to allow businesses in first because, being mostly on the ground floor, they were most exposed to flood damage. Others, however, questioned that decision.

"I might be biased being a resident, but I think residents should have been able to go down first," Olsen said. "All the business owners had homes to go home to."

Murphy said that the challenges residents faced after the flood knit the community together. She described going to town meetings and making friends with people she had "walked past a million times." A few weeks after the flood, Murphy and her husband organized a neighborhood block party just outside the east end of the evacuation zone.

"It was good to see people's faces," she said.

"For our group of friends, it's not just the location," Murphy said, explaining why residents wanted to return. "Your neighbors become your friends, become your family. So of course you want to go back home. You want to go back to where you're comfortable."

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