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One month after flood, Main Street resident who lost car, business and home chooses to 'cope, not crumble'

Volunteers remove large cases and other inventory lodged in mud from Discoveries on Main Street.
Volunteers remove large cases and other inventory lodged in mud from Discoveries on Main Street. (Courtesy of Sally Fox Tennant)

In one swift night, Sally Fox Tennant lost her car, her home and her business to a torrent of floodwater that gushed down Main Street, gutted businesses and displaced dozens.

Nearly one month later, Tennant, 61, is slowly picking up the pieces of a life she built and created on Main Street for nearly 35 years.

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"You don't have a choice. You either cope or you crumble," Tennant said. "So you cope and you just keep putting one foot in front of the other."

Tennant lived in an apartment on top of her business, Discoveries, a craft gallery and funky gift boutique that opened in 1980 and housed creations from hundreds of artisans and crafters.

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As Ellicott City recovers after the July flood, the recovery process is especially difficult to for Sally Tennant, a Howard County resident who lost her business, her car and was displaced from her home. Tennant did not purchase flood insurance.
As Ellicott City recovers after the July flood, the recovery process is especially difficult to for Sally Tennant, a Howard County resident who lost her business, her car and was displaced from her home. Tennant did not purchase flood insurance. (Fatimah Waseem)

Her sister replaced her car, her son in Baltimore County took her in and, over the last month, volunteers have worked with Tennant to throw out damaged $2,000 display cases and salvage inventory from chocks of mud.

But even as the county expects to open parts of the street to foot traffic by mid-September, Tennant eyes a long and uncertain road to recovery.

"We have worked like dogs and you can't work any faster and you can't work any smarter," Tennant said. "We're not even past clean-up mode yet. I don't even know the dollars and cents of what I'm facing. It doesn't look good, that's for sure."

Tennant said she only has insurance on her car.

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The question on many merchants' minds is what the town will look like after the flood. Before the flood, Tennant said she saw an increasingly disturbing pattern of walls of water collecting in the historic district even during the most minor rains.

The night of the flood, Tennant was trapped in her building as she watched in horror as the floodwaters rose and carried inventory away from shops on the opposite side of the street.

Tennant and her cat, Darth Vader, squeezed through a small window in her neighbor's apartment to escape the rising waters.

Now, local flood alerts from her phone trigger an emotional response.

"I kind of go numb. You get them so often they don't mean anything, but it triggers a response it didn't use to. My life is in that store and I always thought those things were protected from the elements. But they're not."

Tennant said she's fortunate some of her merchandise — including glass goblets that had "no business surviving" because of their fragility — weathered through the flood.

"The blessing for me, a lot of inventory somehow stayed in the store and we have to salvage it. That's really a blessing. Whatever way it happened to you, you have to look at it and say, what can I hold on to?" she said.

Joan Eve Classics and Collectibles, a store housed in one of two buildings hit hardest by Saturday's deadly flood in old Ellicott city, is on the verge of collapse, leaving Joan Eve Shea-Cohen without a livelihood she spent years building.

Despite the hard hit, Tennant said she will return to the flood-prone historic district.

"That flood is not going to get the best of me. My intention is never questioned whether I'm going to return. It's how the hell I'm going to do it," Tennant said.

For many businesses and residents, the emotional draw of the old town will bring people back.

"There's going to be a hell of a lot of good stories to tell that come out of Ellicott City," Tennant said. "I don't know how different or similar this shop will look. But I'm anticipating the day. I can't even visualize what I'm going to do differently. It changes me. It changes all of Ellicott City."

But how strong the town returns will depend on the county's long-term investment in the historic district.

"We're all flying by the seat of our pants. The state and the county have to find every single resource they can to help us," Tennant said. "We're small merchants. We're not big boys. You can't hide the cost of this one business amid the global corporation. This is it. All the eggs are in one basket for most of us."

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