Ellicott City was devastated by flash flooding from a massive rainstorm Sunday, just two years after a similar event forced the historic city in Howard County to rebuild much of its Main Street.
Murky brown water ripped through Main Street — the epicenter of flooding in the region — in the late afternoon, submerging cars and businesses’ first floors for nearly two hours. By nightfall, floodwaters had begun to recede. The cycle replayed scenes from 2016: customers stranded in restaurants, storefronts destroyed and cars overturned.
Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency and directed the Maryland Emergency Management Agency to assist in Ellicott City’s recovery.
“They say this is a once-every-1,000-years flood, and we’ve had two of them in two years,” he said, calling the event “devastating.”
Officials said Monday that they were searching for one person who had been reported missing. Eddison Hermond, 39, of Severn was last seen at 5:20 p.m. Sunday near La Palapa restaurant on Main Street, according to Howard County police.
“This is worse” than the storm in July 2016, which killed two people and destroyed local businesses, Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman said at a news conference Sunday evening. He said he was “heartbroken” and urged people to avoid the area. “This is people’s lives, and they don’t need to have strangers coming around” gawking at the destruction, he said.
That July 2016 storm cost the historic mill town tens of millions of dollars in damage and lost business. And the damage was similar Sunday, with many of the same storefronts along Main Street — including the former Caplan’s Department Store — gutted once again.
As of about 9:30 a.m. Monday, BGE reported that slightly fewer than 600 Howard County customers were still without power, compared with about 770 in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Harford and Carroll counties combined. Hundreds more had been without power Sunday night. The provider predicted extended outages of gas and electric service in areas of heavy flooding until equipment could be examined and possibly rebuilt.
A little more than two weeks ago, Hogan announced that the state and county had been awarded more than $1 million by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fund projects aimed at reducing the flood risk in the areas surrounding Main Street. At the time, he called it an “important step in the rebirth of downtown Ellicott City.”
At a previous news conference,Kittleman had announced that 96 percent of businesses were back and more than 20 new ones had opened in the Main Street area. Now many of them will be forced to recover and rebuild once again — or cut their losses and close or move elsewhere.
Jessica Ur, a server at Pure Wine Cafe on Main Street, said she saw the pounding floodwaters carry three or four parked cars down the street.
“It’s significantly higher than it was before,” she said, referring to the previous flood. “At this point, I’m definitely really worried about all our neighbors on Main Street.”
Patrons stuck on the second-floor deck of Phoenix Emporium watched the swift waters rush past trucks and Jeeps left in the road. Arianna Wilgar, an employee of Portalli’s Italian Restaurant, said the water had reached the establishment’s second floor. It was not that high last time, she said.
"I haven't seen the shop yet, but I know it's going to be devastating,” said Len Berkowitz, the owner of Great Panes Art Glass Studio. “But there's nothing you can do, I guess. Nature has its way."
According to National Weather Service meteorologist Brian LaSorsa, 7.48 inches of rain fell in Ellicott City by Sunday evening, and the Catonsville area got 9.71 inches.
LaSorsa said he could not confirm whether this storm was worse than in 2016.
After the last flood, the Ellicott City Partnership raised more than $1.85 million to help business owners and property owners rebuild and recover. On Sunday, organizers updated their website, HelpEllicottCity.com, and said they were using it again to raise funds for those affected by the storm.
Kittleman said there were “a lot of swift water rescues” amid the storm. And many others fled from restaurants and other venues along Main Street on their own, stepping through rising waters to get to higher ground.
The flooding forced a wedding party to evacuate, some with heels in hand, from the Main Street Ballroom.
“It looked like we were in the Titanic or ‘The Poseidon Adventure,’ ” said the bride’s father, Bill Rigney. At first, the ballroom doors were keeping water out, but “all the sudden it just can’t anymore.”
Drivers navigate I-95 North near Caton Avenue in Baltimore. (Colin Campbell, Baltimore Sun video)
Howard County fire and rescue department tweeted that “hundreds of rescuers” swarmed to the area, with swift water units responding from as far away as Northern Virginia. As the flood waters receded, officials evacuated the area due to a gas leak.
Ur, the 27-year-old server at Pure Wine, praised the rescue teams working fast to evacuate restaurants in the historic district.
“The first responders were here really quickly, before it got as bad,” she said.
A Howard County spokesman, Mark Miller, said that the county would soon begin putting together its long-term recovery plan — “just like last time.”
Kittleman said it was too soon on Sunday night to discuss whether the county did enough after the 2016 flooding to mitigate Ellicott City’s vulnerabilities to such disasters. He said he’d like to tell property owners on Main Street to rebuild, but “they have to make that decision.”
“I just want them to know that whatever decision they make, I will respect that,” he said. “But I want to work with them and help them in any way I can.”