Historic Main Street in Ellicott City began taking the first steps in a long recovery Monday as business owners, residents and officials assessed damage from the weekend's devastating flood.
The surging water Saturday night destroyed roads, gutted buildings and washed cars into the Patapsco River.
Yet Don Reuwer, who owns or co-owns more than a dozen buildings in the historic village, vowed the town would be back "bigger and better than ever."
"Every setback that we've had has resulted in something better," he said.
Officials could not say when they might reopen Main Street. The road remained closed Monday as crews worked to shore up buildings and clear mud and debris.
About 80 business owners were permitted to see their businesses — though not to go inside — during a walk-through of the town on Monday. More were expected to be allowed in on Tuesday.
The cleanup could take "months, probably years," Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman said. He said the flood "continues to threaten health, safety, welfare and property."
"It's a disaster area down there," he said. "It looks like a war zone."
"It's going to be a long-term recovery," said Emily Allen, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.
Officials were only beginning to tally the damage. Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford, who lives in Howard County, is coordinating the state response. He said it was too early to estimate costs.
Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency over the weekend, allowing the state to send emergency planners, state troopers and highway crews to the county. An incident management team from Pennsylvania is also helping.
U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski toured the area, and the state was planning to request aid from the federal government.
When numbers start to roll in, officials said, they are likely to run into the tens of millions of dollars.
Michael Scott, a geology professor at Salisbury University, co-wrote a report on flood risks for the county in 2010.
He said the buildings hit hardest might have suffered about $10 million in damage.
The damage could be greater, he said, because property values have likely risen since the report was completed.
And he noted his rough calculation doesn't account for the cost of infrastructure — roads, water lines and utility lines — or lost sales at stores and restaurants or lost wages for out-of-work employees.
Scott said the damage occurred much as he and his colleagues projected in 2010.
"It took place where we predicted it would and impacted the buildings we thought it might," he said.
Deepa Srinivasan, the consultant who wrote the report with Scott, said it's long been clear Ellicott City's Main Street is vulnerable.
"This area has been flooded before. It will be flooded again. It's not a question of if, it's a question of when," Srinivasan said. "The area is low-lying and it's highly vulnerable."
State agencies including the Department of Commerce and the Maryland Insurance Administration said they were poised to help. Rutherford noted that most of the affected shops are small, locally run businesses.
"These are not chain operations," he said.
One of Reuwer's properties — Caplan's Department Store in the heart of downtown — was gutted by the storm. Walls on two sides of the structure were completely missing Monday. The front doors and windows were blown out, and nothing was recognizable on the main floor.
Reuwer said he and his partners were working on plans to save the historic facade of the building, which he said was largely intact, while rebuilding the structure behind it with modern materials.
He said most of his buildings have federal flood insurance, and officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency had already contacted him.
"They seem to be really eager to get out here and assess the damage and turn us loose on renovations," he said. "They seem to be doing a great job, so it's much appreciated."
Others were less optimistic.
When Mariah Cohee, general manager of Sweet Elizabeth Jane, saw the clothing boutique on Monday, her knees buckled.
"For us, it is like a death," Cohee said.
About 180 vehicles were towed from the Main Street area to Centennial High School, where owners could arrange insurance reviews and gather personal belongings. Another 20 vehicles remained stuck in the Patapsco River.
Emergency crews were working to stabilize buildings damaged by the flood, and utility workers attended to fallen wires and toppled utility poles. At the corner of Main Street and Ellicott Mills Drive, crews poured 70 tons of gravel to stabilize a hillside that had largely washed away.
State troopers and Howard County police officers were stationed along Main Street, keeping an eye on shops amid the beeping of alarms and machinery.
Howard County Fire Chief John Butler said teams had shifted to stabilizing structures and "doing a more detailed search and rescue of all structures."
"Time is somewhat on our side," he said, "so we can take our time and do a very specific attic-to-basement, room-to-room search."
Officials urged people to stay away from the area as cleanup continued.
"If we get out of here, leave no equipment behind and no one injured, it'll be a success," said a county spokesman, Andy Barth.
At a meeting with property owners Monday evening, Kittleman expressed sympathy and concern for residents.
"I don't think I'll ever know how you feel," he said.
Johnny Breidenbach, owner of Johnny's Bistro on Main Street, said he hasn't been able to see his business to assess the damage.
"I know I've lost everything," he said.
He said a brother who lives in a flood-prone area of Rhode Island said it has taken years to recover from similar incidents there. Breidenbach said that's too long.
"I don't even have six months," he said. "I may have to move on. I just don't know. I love Ellicott City."
Joan Eve Shea, owner of Joan Eve Classics and Collectibles, wept for her store, which she said had been destroyed. Breidenbach hugged her.
"I don't know what's going to be there to come back to," she said. "I loved my store. I don't know what's going to happen."
Baltimore Sun reporters Jesse Coburn, Michael Dresser, Andrew Dunn and Kevin Rector and Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Fatimah Waseem Andrew Michaels contributed to this article.
How to help
• The United Way of Central Maryland fund called "ECStrong" will support humanitarian relief for the victims. Text ECStrong to 51555 or visit www.uwcm.org/ecstrong
•A food bank will open at 8 a.m. today at the Community Action Council of Howard County.
•Donations for merchants and residents: www.HelpEllicottCity.com.
•Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman urged a delay in donations of construction supplies because officials do not know yet what will be needed.
•More information can be found at howardcountymd.gov.