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Rainy week heightens concern on Ellicott City's Main Street

When rain is in the forecast, Evan Brown goes to the numbers.

“Six inches of rain in 90 minutes seems to be the magic number when things start to crumble,” said Brown, owner of Portalli’s on Main Street in historic Ellicott City. His business was among the restaurants and shops devastated during a flash flood in May when area rivers overflowed their banks.

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The rains that have struck the region in recent days — already pushing to record July totals for the state — have many in the historic district on edge.

Over the weekend the area saw five inches of rain, and Monday and Tuesday each brought more accumulation. The National Weather Service warned that the region is at risk for flash flooding because the ground is saturated from days of rain. Thunderstorms are possible through this week.

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Howard County's shifted focus to disaster recovery in Ellicott City has meant other public works projects have had to shift their timelines. Other projects, including highway maintenance and annual storm drain repairs, have been pushed back as much as a month.

Those prospects are taking a toll in a community where many are wary, and weary, of weather.

The weekend total was enough to flood the basement of Brown’s Catonsville home, but so far not enough to flood his Ellicott City restaurant.

“If Saturday night’s rain had been a little stronger and a little heavier, I would have been concerned,” he said.

This town, built on the Patapsco and Tiber, has been devastated by flooding twice in three years: a July 2016 flood that left two people dead, closed dozens of businesses and caused millions in damage; and another in May that resulted in one death and had a similar impact on business, property and infrastructure.

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Last Friday a state of emergency after the most recent flood was finally lifted, allowing greater access to Main Street for merchants and their customers.

Majd AlGhatrif, an owner of Syriana Cafe, said that was a good day, “with people walking up and down the street.”

The weekend rain, however, slowed business to a trickle, and “gave me a bit of a post traumatic effect.”

Residents, merchants and officials in Ellicott City awoke Monday to examine the devastation wrought by floods that coursed through the historic mill town the night before — the second time in less than two years. Many immediately began to ask the question: Should we rebuild again?

On Tuesday during a drier stretch, Winnie Carpenter came into the cafe — her eighth trip in the past few week. She said Main Street hasn’t been getting much foot traffic because most business are still closed and until recently parts were fenced off.

“I live nearby and they’re open and that’s good,” she said. “I’d like to see it stay and others come back.”

It’s not clear how many more will come back. For now just a few are operating. Some like Syriana, have a bucket here and there to catch drips. Others still have water creeping in from the giant slopping rock behind their building from the week’s rain. So far, however, there hasn’t been any flooding.

Businesses, residents and consumers will be warned of any immediate safety threat through a variety of means, including social media, said Paul Milton, a county spokesman.

“We’re not doing anything differently yet,” he said. “We don’t have any significant concerns at the moment.”

Businesses that have committed to return to Ellicott City say the rainfall this week is causing collective concern, but no real change in course. Brown said he got his permits to rebuild last week and, like others around him, is determined to return to business.

After Ellicott City suffered the deadly and devastating flash flood of 2016, the Howard County government commissioned an engineering study to determine how much it would cost to make the historic mill town safer. The answer: A lot.

Kelli Myers, owner of two Ellicott City businesses, A Journey from Junk and Junk Girl, said she’s avoided thinking about the current weather’s effect on Ellicott City by staying at home in Pikesville and tending to water in her basement.

That doesn’t mean she’s not concerned, and she certainly doesn’t blame other business owners for not returning. Myers said she lost everything in the May flood and is still paying for merchandise that was ruined. But she believes her “best bet” is to return, and hopes her customers do too.

“We can’t turn Main Street into a ghost town,” she said.

In the long term, business owners informally surveyed by The Baltimore Sun said it’s more likely customers ultimately determine whether their shops remain viable — not Mother Nature. Though, some said they are not sure about their neighbors, particularly those who have been through two floods in two years.

Many say they are counting on government to do its part to make costly repairs necessary for a safe and viable commercial district. An estimate from Howard County government commissioned from an engineering study after the 2016 flood determined there were $35 million in immediate improvements needed for flood control ponds and other work, and another $60 million to $85 million in long-term mitigation warranted.

Officials say they are working on it. County Executive Allan Kittleman recently announced $18 million in work upstream to slow the flow of water and reduce the likelihood of another flash flood.

Others agree the worry will always be there, about flooding, customers and the future.

David Reyes re-opened his Reyes Jewelry Exchange on Main Street several weeks ago with limited street access to the business that buys gold, silver, platinum and diamonds and sells them on commodity exchanges.

He said he’s concerned every time it rains, and with heavy downpours in recent days, “the Tibor and all the canals and underground water conduits, they were all filled up yesterday, maxed out. ...It doesn't take much to flood, and it happens in a moment.”

Still, Reyes feels his building is in one of the safest locations, and he wants to stay long term. He is hoping to see a water mitigation plan put into place as quickly as possible.

“The waterways in this town are not capable of handling the amount of water we get down here,” Reyes said.

Randy Mariner, owner of Manor Hill Tavern on Old Columbia Pike, joined with others to do their own stormwater management. Because of the efforts to shore up the back of their structures and divert water around the buildings, they’ve had no damage since 2016. The tavern reopened July 16.

He said his building could still flood. But Mariner said that he’s choosing to be positive. In part to help those trying to rebuild and in part to keep his employees at work, he opened just to feed workers immediately after the May flood.

Now that Main Street is back open, he’s hoping the foot traffic comes back in the short and long term.

“Anytime you see lightning there is nervousness,” he said. “Clearly something needs to change, and I believe the county is working really hard. ….But I’m very supportive. I’m not a proponent of walking away.”

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