Sally Fox Tennant wrapped a glass figurine Saturday for one of her regular customers at her pottery and crafts shop on Ellicott City's Main Street, careful not to disturb specks of dirt that still clung to the blue kitten from July's devastating flash flood.
"Flood kitty," Tennant dubbed one of the breakable items that miraculously survived 17-foot-high rising water that destroyed so much of her 35-year-old shop, Discoveries, and the upstairs apartment where she lived, knocking out the storefront, submerging the basement and ruining thousands of dollars worth of porcelain dolls and other goods.
After four months of raking out mud and rebuilding, Tennant joined 70 other business operators on the historic street Saturday for the official reopening of downtown Ellicott City. Tennant hadn't had time to wash muck from some merchandise, but customers welcomed back the shop, dirt and all.
"This flood's not going to dictate to me how I live my life and get me down," said Tennant, who opened about half her shop Saturday thanks to help from volunteers. "It's an act of nature, and I'm a resilient person. ... There is no place like Ellicott City and no other place I'd want to have a shop besides Ellicott City."
Main Street's reopening was pegged to Small Business Saturday, an American Express-created event that celebrates mom-and-pop shops and services. Hundreds of shoppers, including community members and elected officials, clogged Main Street's sidewalks and filled its shops for the event.
About 70 of 90 businesses have been able to reopen in former or new locations, said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman. He and other officials started the day by cutting a red ribbon that stretched across Main Street.
"We've gone through a tough almost four months, but today is the day we demonstrate and show everybody around the country the resiliency of the people of Ellicott City," Kittleman said in an interview. "We have business owners who have worked really hard, property owners who've worked hard, [and] residents, to get to this day."
Still, much rebuilding is left. Visitors peered into storefronts to find gutted buildings with partially exposed cinder block walls, and many former shops and restaurants remain boarded up. Others, such as Tea on the Tiber, a Victorian tea room and gift shop, and Southwest Connection & Silver Arrow Fudge Shop, have "coming soon" signs in windows. Yet others have decided not to reopen.
Jen and Larry Symms of Ellicott City showed their children, Henry, 8, and Nathan, 6, what was left of the former Sweet Elizabeth Jane's women's clothing shop in the Caplan building, now gutted and still partially exposed to the elements. The apparel shop reopened Friday in a new location farther up the street. Jen Symms said her oldest son had asked people to contribute to the Ellicott City rebuilding instead of giving him birthday presents this year.
"We've been here five years, and we love it," Symms said, tearing up. "This is where I shop every year for Christmas. It was devastating to see the loss."
The flood dumped eight feet of water inside Cottage Antiques, destroying all but the front of the building, washing away almost all of the Christmas inventory and sports memorabilia, said owner Blair Jett, who reopened the shop Saturday.
"Insurance covered nothing, which was devastating to us," Jett said. "We felt like we were just throwing our lives in the dumpsters. But we weren't going to let it beat us, and we just came back and just worked and worked and worked, and here we are now, almost four months later and open with new paint, carpeting and new showcases, and we're going to make it bigger and better."
Shoppers in the antique store included Linda Isaacs of Laurel and Deirdre Buell of Mount Airy, who have been coming to Ellicott City to shop, eat and attend music festivals for more than 20 years.
"I lived here when [Hurricane] Agnes hit, and I remember what happened then," Buell said. "It was just so awful to see this town get hit again. It's great that everyone's pitched in. When I heard the actual official reopening was going to be this weekend — we always do the Small Business Saturday — where else could you go?"
Robin Holliday, owner of Horse Spirits Gallery who tried to hold back the floodwater before it shattered her gallery door, said she watched the street being destroyed firsthand.
"And now I have watched it come back to life," she said before the ribbon cutting. "It is such a blessing, and I know not everybody's open, and my hope for places like Bean Hollow and stores that are at the bottom of the street is that when they open, we will greet them with the same enthusiasm."