Howard County Police Major E.A. Jones consoles distraught Ellicott City business owner Brenda Franz. Brenda said she spent three harrowing hours waiting to be rescued from Sunday’s flash flood. (Mike Jordan/BPE)
ELLICOTT CITY, MD — Less than 24-hours after yet another ruinous flood rocked the historic district of Ellicott City, Maryland, public officials, shopkeepers, homeowners and onlookers were trying to come to grips with the startling devastation. And while most residents and visitors have checked in as safe, rescue teams continue to search for a 39-year-old National Guardsman who was last seen disappearing in the raging waters behind the La Palapa Grill at the height of the flood.
Ellicott City is a disaster area, and the emotions we encountered while talking with people ranged from shock and heartache to anger over what many see as the bitter fruits of over-development.
At a 2 p.m. press conference in the parking lot behind Old St. Paul’s Church, County Executive Allan Kittleman said, “It’s still a difficult scene down there.
“We’ve had a chance to talk with some of the shop owners, and they are as devastated as you can expect. They have gone through hell to get to where they were before this flood, and now they are going through it all over again. Our hearts are with them. We told them we are here to help in anyway that’s possible, and we greatly appreciate our Federal partners coming to offer assistance and encouragement for all of us.”
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has declared a state of emergency for Ellicott City.
Kittleman demurred when asked twice if development in the hills surrounding Ellicott City has played a role in the recent flooding, only saying, “We have plenty of time to address those issues. Right now, we’re talking about people’s lives and making sure they have what they need. We can talk about that later, but I don’t think now is the time to do it.”
Howard County Fire Chief John Butler said that rescue crews were able to assist in evacuating about 300 people from hazardous areas, noting that, “35-40 of those assists were high water rescues.” The chief also confirmed that even as the rescues were occurring – both during and after the storm – Howard County Fire units were fighting two unrelated blazes. The chief later expressed thanks to neighboring jurisdictions for the help they rendered to Howard County, even as some of those jurisdictions were also dealing with flooding from the storm.
Butler reaffirmed that the search for the missing man is continuing, saying teams with dogs and electronic equipment are methodically combing the entire area. Kittleman had earlier stated that the missing man – Eddison Hermond of Severn, Maryland – had exited the safety of La Palapa Grill to help a woman locate her cat.
UPDATE: On Tuesday afternoon, searchers found the body of an adult male in the Patapsco River, just across the Baltimore County line. The victim was later confirmed to be 39-year-old Eddison Hermond of Severn, Maryland. Hermond was last seen on Sunday evening at about 4:20 p.m. as he disappeared in the flood waters behind the La Palapa Grill in Ellicott City.
Howard County Police Chief Gary Gardner said his officers have been joined by the Maryland State Police in an ongoing effort to secure the afflicted area.
“We are in the process of doing the same thing we did in 2016 – installing fencing and designating those areas as no access zones. That will continue until we deem it is safe for individuals to reenter.”
Drivers should know that many streets which funnel into the historic mill town – including Old Columbia Pike, New Cut Road and busy Main Street – are closed indefinitely. Detours are now in place on both the Howard County and Baltimore County sides of the city.
As men and machines moved wrecked cars and debris from the northern edges of town, Ellicott City residents Kathy Wyatt and her friend Sue paused to consider the damage from an elevated spot near the steps of the city courthouse.
“It’s heartbreaking to see this happen again,” said Kathy. “We love our little town.”
The pair were encouraged that a rain garden – installed after the 2016 flooding on a hill behind the Ellicott Mills Brewing Company – seems to have helped stem the flow in that particular area.
“In 2016, you couldn’t even see the parking lot,” said Sue. “It was just covered in mud. The stone bridge below us (between Court Ave. and Main St.) washed out the last time, but the new one seems to have held up.”
Kathy said she fears that a lot of small business owners won’t be coming back.
“Many of them were still paying for the last flood. It’s sad.”
Brenda Franz of Attic Antiques said she was in her store when the flooding filled her basement, then quickly moved up to the first floor. Retreating to the second floor, she anxiously waited for help and wondered if she would make it out alive.
“I went up a high-pitched roof on a ladder, shimmied down to the chimney and got on another ladder, then walked down to land. I am so grateful to the fire department! Best thing that happened to me in a long time. I thought I was gonna die in that building by myself. I’ve never been around water like that. When you hear water rushing in from all sides and you’re helpless – I’m just glad I’m here today.”
Brenda said she is concerned about her store and its contents but has been told she will have to wait until public officials deem the building safe enough for her to enter.
“They say they’ll let us know when I can come in there, but that’s not soon enough for me. In the last flood, I couldn’t get in my building for two months, and with every passing day, the damage got worse. I don’t even know if I’ll be able to open again.”
Brenda was asked if she thought the county’s efforts in flood prevention helped?
“Obviously, what they did certainly did not help because, if it did, it would have funneled this water somewhere else. But as long as we continue to build as we’re doing now up on the hills, nothing is going to stop the water.
Is she concerned about the possibility of looting?
“With both of my doors wide open, yes – I am concerned.”
Note: Moments before our interview, a tearful Brenda expressed her concern about the possibility of theft to Howard County Police Major E.A. Jones. Jones promised the distraught business owner he’d personally check on her store. When we caught up with Major Jones at the afternoon press conference, he confirmed that he had secured Brenda’s doors, “As best as I could.”
On the east side of the Frederick Road bridge which links Old Ellicott City with Baltimore County, Westchester Ave. resident Sam Walters said he was returning from Bethesda when he first heard the news of the flooding.
“We were coming north on Rt 29, and right about the time we reached Columbia, we started receiving calls and text messages from our neighbors warning us not to come back. They sent along some videos and it really looked like a river here. There was some water here in 2016, but it was nothing compared to what happened here last night. So we circled the area and waited it out until things calmed down. It took until 8 PM, but we were able to come home. At that point, it was really beginning to get dark, but we did try to assess what had happened. This is a pretty close-knit block, so we all walked around together. We had actually planned a community barbecue, so once we took stock of the damage, we decided we might as well sit down and eat to decompress and absorb what had happened.
“Most of the day today, the block has been busy with people stopping by to see what happened; to make sure that we are okay and assess what damage has been done. We really lucked out. Our house was virtually untouched, except for having our driveway washed out. Compared to what has happened to others? This is nothing.”
Walter’s thoughts moving forward?
“I think of all of the places we could have moved to in Ellicott City, we picked one of the best. You never really know what kind of neighbors you will get, and this is just a very supportive block. People here come together whenever something happens. As far as downtown Ellicott City goes, a lot of people are wondering if it will ever come back. There is a lot of depression about that. My husband just relocated his business to Main Street in January, but he doesn’t want to talk about what happened just yet.
“I’m a little more optimistic. This town has been here a long time and is pretty well known. I think a lot businesses will come back, but the mix of business owners will probably be different.”
Back down on Main Street, Linthicum resident Nathan Wigley edged up to the police line on the bridge over the Patapsco just east of the city. Wigley said he and his family were on their way to a holiday cookout in nearby Oella, when the sudden Sunday afternoon rains turned disastrously ugly.
“We were coming up Rolling Road and could see sections that were underwater, so we turned off onto a side road to wait the rain out. That’s when I saw an F-150 (Ford truck) with water up to its windows. Things weren’t looking good. When we finally made it up to Frederick Road, we saw fire units from 4-5 different jurisdictions racing around, including one which had a boat on the back of a trailer. At that point, we got a call from another friend, who lives in Catonsville, asking for help with flooding in his basement. We figured we’d ride out the storm at his house while helping him clean up, so that’s what we did.”
Also surveying the sad sight of the beleaguered city from the bridge just east of town, Baltimorean Cliff Blackstone reflected on what the damage means to the historic district’s many small business owners:
“I was just here about two months ago for the grand re-opening of the Horse Spirit Arts Gallery. This weekend, they were holding an event to celebrate their post-flood revival and preparing to kick-off their summer season. These are all small artists. The owner gives them a brick and mortar venue to showcase their work, and it’s all gone. How do you go to the insurance company with a claim for hand-made jewelry you just produced? It was terrible the last time, but twice? How do you even survive this?
“The last one was supposedly a thousand-year storm, but now a second in as many years? When will the next one come?”
Relief workers are urged to visit the Howard County Disaster Relief Volunteer page.
Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A one-time newsboy for the Evening Sun and professional presence at the Washington Herald, Tony’s poetry, photography, humor, and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore!, Destination Maryland, Magic Octopus Magazine, Los Angeles Post-Examiner, Voice of Baltimore, SmartCEO, Alvarez Fiction, and Tales of Blood and Roses. If you notice that his work has been purloined, please let him know. As the Good Book says, “Thou shalt not steal.”