With a purposeful lack of fanfare, Howard County officials reopened Ellicott City's Main Street late Thursday afternoon, 21/2 months after the devastating flash flood that killed two people and caused extensive damage in the historic mill town.
The traffic signals at Main Street and Old Columbia Pike were switched from steady blinking red to regular cycles at 5 p.m. As the first vehicles turned onto Main Street, drivers honked their horns in celebration.
At her temporary shop, Main Street Rising, owner Donna Sanger was happy to see cars and people passing by outside.
"I can't tell you how weird it's been," Sanger said of Main Street's long closure. "To see the traffic and to see people walking down the street is heartwarming."
Among her first customers were Janet and Mark Ford, residents of nearby College Avenue who couldn't wait for Main Street to reopen.
"I was bugging him: 'We gotta go, We gotta go,'" Janet Ford said. "I want it to succeed so much. I don't want to see the history go away."
The Fords have been checking in on Main Street frequently since the flood, seeing which favorite shops and restaurants were reopening. On Thursday, they stocked up on flavored vinegars — fig for her, cherry for him — at Main Street Rising.
Main Street's reopening attracted a steady stream of cars and pedestrians — many people walked along the sidewalks, peering into buildings. Yet even as the historic district opened, plenty of work remains for residents and business owners trying to recover from a storm that caused an estimated $23 million in damage.
A total of 61/2 inches of rain fell in the space of two hours on the evening of Saturday, July 30, swelling the Tiber and Hudson tributaries of the Patapsco River and triggering floods coursing down the street as people dined and shopped.
Jessica Watsula, 35, of Lebanon, Pa., and Joseph Anthony Blevins, 38, of Windsor Mill were swept away in the floodwaters. Their bodies were later found in the Patapsco.
Floodwaters smashed through glass windows and doors, carrying merchandise away, gouging sinkholes, tossing cars, and depositing mud and sediment all over the town.
Many buildings remain closed with windows boarded up. The street and sidewalks are a patchwork of concrete and asphalt as utility work continues.
Main Street Rising was one of few businesses along the lower stretch of Main Street that reopened Thursday. Sanger owns the building next door, where she and daughter Julia opened Park Ridge Trading in May selling specialty foods and gifts.
While their building is undergoing repairs, the Sangers will operate a temporary shop through the holidays. For the past week, they scrambled to get fixtures in place and stock products to sell. Sanger hopes other merchants will follow suit.
"Someone has to go first," she said.
County officials attempted to keep the road reopening low-key, with no ceremonies or speeches. County Executive Allan H. Kittleman announced at a news conference Wednesday the street would reopen but did not attend Thursday.
Kittleman and other officials issued a statement urging people to patronize the reopened businesses while respecting the work that remains to be done.
"The best way to show your support is to patronize those businesses that have already opened their doors," said a joint statement from Kittleman, Howard County Councilman Jon Weinstein, Del. Robert Flanagan and state Sen. Gail Bates.
"We will reserve celebrating our resilience for a time later this year when we can be joined by others who are still recovering," they wrote.
In recent weeks, the county gradually reopened parts of Main Street and more businesses have opened their doors. The bridge over the Patapsco reopened to traffic in mid-September, but cars coming over from Baltimore County were immediately diverted off Main Street.
Weinstein, a Democrat who represents the area, said he hoped there eventually would be a bigger cause for celebration when more businesses are up and running. Some stores are moving to new locations, and a few don't plan to return, he said.
Still, Weinstein noted that Saturday farmers' markets still are being held and holiday events, including a tree-lighting and "midnight madness" shopping event, are in the works.
"We want people to come. We are open for business again," Weinstein said. "We're working hard to get Ellicott City back."
Many have raised concerns that increasing development in the area — with more rooftops and paved surfaces — could be making low-lying Main Street vulnerable to flooding. Weinstein proposed a nine-month moratorium on new development in the area, but the Howard County Council voted Wednesday to table the bill until November.
Weinstein said he's also considering other rules for development in the area, such as requiring projects to control greater amounts of rainwater and making it more difficult for developers to receive waivers from those requirements.
On Thursday, though, concerns about prevention of future flooding took a back seat to the current recovery.
Lisa Emmerling was optimistic that traffic would help boost business at the Antique Depot, where she sells items from three stalls. The store is just off Main Street on Maryland Avenue — out of sight for many visitors. The shop reopened Sept. 2 after repairs to the basement.
"It's been slow," she said.
She's eager for other shops to reopen — many others nearby remain boarded up — but she's confident Main Street will rebound.
"We feel like we're really coming back and we have faith," Emmerling said. "We've had three hurricanes, two fires and a train derailment. But we keep coming back."
Filiz McNamara, who lives nearby in Oella, was teaching an art class at a studio on Main Street on the night of the flooding. She returned Thursday, relieved to be able to walk the street again.
"It felt amazing," she said. "No bars, no fences."
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Andrew Michaels and Fatimah Waseem contributed to this article.