Scott O'Toole and Kelly Zimmerman first heard about the flash flood in historic Ellicott City on Wednesday, Sept. 7 from a friend. The creek behind their basement-level apartment off Main Street, the friend told them, was a raging torrent of water, rushing over its banks toward their sliding glass doors.
They were on vacation, almost to their destination in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but they turned around immediately, and Zimmerman frantically called another friend to get hercats out of the apartment.
By the time they got home at about 6 p.m., everything was destroyed. The water and the heavy debris it carried had smashed through their doors and flooded the entire apartment, back through the entrance room and the kitchen and living space, back through a small hallway and into a far room the couple used to practice with their band, Dirty Secrets.
At the flood's height, the far back room had about six feet of water in it, a devastating reality indicated by a smudgy water mark on the wall.
The cats had been rescued. Nothing else could be.
The next afternoon, the couple and some of their friends were assessing the damage. Mud covered the floors. Glass from the smashed doors lay everywhere. Mud and debris from the creek stood in clumped piles against the walls, in tiny pockets of space under, on top of and inside furniture.
The yard was strewn with debris and the couple's belongings. A six-foot wooden fence was smashed flat.
Their band equipment — six guitars, a drum set, a bass amplifier, two computers and "a whole bunch of mics," O'Toole said — were all destroyed.
Zimmerman held back tears.
"I loved this place," she said. "We have a fantastic yard – used to."
"It's all pretty overwhelming. All of our (stuff) is out here in the yard," O'Toole said.
"This whole place is going to have to be gutted," said Gilbert Bishop, the couple's landlord and owner of the building, who was helping with the clean up.
Worst flooding in recent memory
One day after the last swirls of Tropical Storm Lee brought heavy and lasting rain to the already saturated area, causing a flash flood that covered Main Street and inundated many shops, people throughout the historic town were taking stock of the damage.
A retaining wall on Mulligans Hill Lane smashed six vehicles after collapsing. Shop owners up and down Main Street reported three, four, five feet of standing water being pumped out of their basements. Sand bags piled up at doorways as people swept mud outside, threw soiled carpets on the street and stacked wet pieces of wood on the curb.
"When you describe things that happen in this town, people say you've got to be exaggerating," said Ed Williams, owner of the Mumbles and Squeaks Toy Shoppe on Main Street for almost two decades. "But after 19 years, you have an institutional memory."
Williams, who built the town's marker for historic floods years ago when he was executive director of the B&O Railroad Museum, said this flooding was worse than he has ever seen.
Len Berkowitz and Sherry Fackler-Berkowitz, who have owned Great Panes Art Glass Studio down the street for 32 years, said the same.
Their store sits on I-beams on both sides and over top of the small tributary known as the Tiber River, which cuts through the town. But as the town flooded Wednesday, the Tiber was anything but small, reaching all the way up to the street level and bringing with it logs and large items of trash and debris.
"We saw a refrigerator go down, a baby's crib, a deck," Williams said.
"When it rose, you could hear things hitting the building. The building was moving," Fackler-Berkowitz said. "We've never seen it like this."
"Every time the logs or debris hit the I-beams, it was shaking," Berkowitz said.
Floating dumpsters, moved cars
"I freaked out, I did," said Marissa Jonner, owner of Little Sunshine Trading Co., up the street next to Williams' toy shop, as she and Williams discussed the Tiber raging behind their stores and a flood of water coming down Main Street in front.
"It was shooting in from around all the cars," Jonner said, noting cars parked on the street during the storm caused currents of water toward the shops.
Dumpsters had floated. Cars were pushed sideways in the storm. A plastic kayak or canoe was scrunched almost into a ball in the creek behind O'Toole and Zimmerman's home.
At one point during the early stages of the flood, the experienced Williams managed to get the word out and have at least two cars moved.
"He was running around the streets. Honest to God, I can't say enough about Ed," Jonner said. "If he didn't get that car moved, this store would have been destroyed" because water swirling around the car would have entered the store.
As it is, only Jonner's basement — which she unfortunately had just moved some merchandise into a couple days before — was substantially flooded.
Berkowitz and Fackler-Berkowitz have all 32 years worth of their original glass-art designs in their basement, but they've been around long enough to know to keep things high, they said.
About 2,400 pieces of original art are within a foot of the ceiling in the basement and were safe, Berkowitz said, even though the couple had to rent a pump with a two-inch-diameter hose to remove the more than three feet of water that had flooded in.
The fate of their five-horse-power compressor for sand blasting, which was completely submerged, is less clear, but Berkowitz said it will likely just have to dry out.
Up the hill, Zimmerman and O'Toole faced a far more devastating reality at their home of three years.
"I don't know where to start," O'Toole said of the process of salvaging whatever possible.
As much as the longtime Main Street residents and shop owners know they live in a vulnerable location, they also know what can be done by them — and by Howard County — to help prevent damage to their property.
Jonner said Williams started trying to find people parked in front of their shops an hour before the flooding began.
"He said, 'If these cars don't get off the street, Main Street is going to flood,'" she said, and she saw he was right.
Seeing what kind of debris was coming down the Tiber, which can be a main cause of back-ups and flooding, Williams said, "There has to be a dumping problem (upstream), because all that stuff had to come from somewhere."
Berkowitz said proper consideration is never given to storm water management when new development is considered, including new development all around historic Ellicott City and along Rogers Avenue.
"There are no plans for it. It's really frustrating us," he said. "They're really tying up every ingress and egress in the county into historic Ellicott City."
Berkowitz said his wife called county emergency management officials a week before Hurricane Irene about clearing away debris and trees along the small island near the town in the Patapsco River, which can cause back-ups. But nothing was done.
"They make the decision," he said, "and we swallow it."
A donations collection to help O'Toole and Zimmerman recover from the flooding has been created at http://www.wepay.com/xyheiy, for those interested in helping.