When Mariah Cohee saw the remains of Sweet Elizabeth Jane, a clothing boutique at 8125 Main Street in Ellicott City, her knees buckled and she collapsed to the ground. She moaned.
Cohee, the store's general manager, and Tammy Beideman, the shop's owner, tried to find a way late last night to get a look at the business they have put their life into.
On Monday afternoon, Cohee and Beideman got a taste of closure because, as they said, they desperately needed "to move on."
"For us, it is like a death," Cohee said. "Some like it as an open casket and others like it closed."
Around 1:30 p.m., Howard County Economic Development Authority officials opened up the ravaged street to business owners and residents for the first time since Saturday night's deadly floodwater swept the historic town, known for its quaint shops and community spirit, into ruin.
County business development official Maria Angelica Vargas said they were working with state and county agencies and decided to lead the effort in getting storeowners to see their businesses.
"We are just trying to know who the business owners are on Main Street [and] make sure every one of them receive whatever they need," Vargas said. "[The trips] let them see what everything looks like from the outside because they can't go in. At the same time, they're kept as informed as possible on what's going on. We want to make sure they're not left behind."
Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman called the area a "war zone" and called on the County Council to convene a special session in order to extend the state of emergency he declared after the flash flooding destroyed parts of the city.
The county code requires the council authorize any local state of emergency that lasts longer than seven days. In an executive order calling for the special session, Kittleman said the flooding disaster would last much longer than that.
The emergency "continues to threaten health, safety, welfare, and property in the affected area," Kittleman wrote in the order.
At least two dozen storeowners flowed in and out of the St. Peter's Episcopal Church basement along Rogers Avenue, where the Economic Development Authority had established a temporary command center from which to take people via Gator buggies to the heart of the wreckage. Storeowners anxiously waited to witness the damage done to their businesses.
"I feel like the whole world can see our stores on Facebook and the governor can stand in your building and you can't until now? It's incredibly hard," said Beideman, who opened Sweet Elizabeth Jane in 2011.
With a gray sky overhead, as droplets of rain fell, Beideman peered into the gutted building. Shattered light bulbs hung unlit from the ceiling, surrounded by pitted wood and an upturned floor. A tree trunk pierced the storefront. Colorful remnants of clothing, some with hangers still attached, were twisted around the trunk of the tree.
But the night of the flooding, at around 8 p.m. on Saturday as the shop closed, Beideman got a call from staff. She was in an elevator at American University attending a volleyball game.
Staff members Sarah Huber, Mina Harrison and Natalie Walterhoefer told Beideman water was coming through the floor. Their shop's banner, "God Save the Queen," fell off the walls. The walls shook. The store felt like it was caving in, staff told Beideman.
"The place is important. It's not just about the buildings. It's about the lives and the community," Beideman said.
Emotions ran high inside the church basement Monday afternoon. Business owners embraced one another, some in tears, as they waited to be escorted down by local law enforcement and fire department officials to their shops.
Although heartbroken by her business' destruction, A Journey from Junk owner Kelli Myers said she felt some relief following her tour.
"At least being able to see it will let you sleep at night," Myers said. "At least you know what you're up against."
Deputy Director of Emergency Management Thomas McNeal joined storeowners at the church to listen to their concerns and answer any questions. The tours provided "a visual picture of the damage," McNeal said, since many owners had only heard about the damage.
Later, McNeal said, "[Business owners were] emotional and needed time to process what they're seeing. There were a few questions here and there, and a couple of times, I got out of the car and joined them. I just had to stand back and let them have their moment of grief."
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McNeal said the progress from county and state agencies in cleanup and securing the area over the last two days was remarkable.
"We are working really hard and moving at an incredible pace compared to other disasters that I've worked on around the nation," he said. "We're potentially days ahead [opposed to] where other places would be with the same disaster."
Cohee and Beideman said they are fortunate they have flood insurance. They said they want to find a temporary location for their shop, although they are not sure where at this point.
"The town will rebuild. And it will come back stronger than ever," Beideman said. "There is pride about the people. It's a small a street and it's a mighty group. We've been here for so long. And will continue to stay."
Although Main Street closed to property owners, business owners and residents as of 4 p.m. on Monday, business and organizations throughout the county are uniting to help clean up downtown.
Kittleman said The United Way is currently accepting donations atwww.uwcm.org/ecstrong as well as the Ellicott City Partnership atwww.helpellicottcity.com. As coordinators of the Howard County Food Bank, Kittleman said the Community Action Council will also be accepting food donations for residents who have been displaced.
Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this story.