The Ellicott City floods: What was salvaged, what was lost

Coming together in the face of disaster

By Liz Lee, former CCAN Director of Maryland Volunteer Outreach

With streams converging into the Patapsco River, Ellicott City, a town built on the river has been no stranger to flooding. After the historic July 2016 flooding, the community came together to rebuild the downtown — to rebuild their businesses, their homes, their lives. On May 27th, residents and business owners of Ellicott City were hit once again by another historic devastating flash flood. They’ve only just re-opened their doors.

At CCAN, we wondered what can we could do to help this community during this disaster. More importantly, what could we do to push for stronger climate change policy in Maryland so this would not happen again to Ellicott City and other vulnerable communities. I was touched by my experience at Ellicott City following the May flooding — I saw a community come together once again.

Last August, my intern, Gaby, and I business canvassed the downtown area of Ellicott City to gather endorsements in support of the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Initiative. We heard heartbreaking stories one after the next as owners showed us the height of the watermarks on their walls from the 2016 flood. I met the local hero of a toy shop on Main Street — as the last link of a human chain, he pulled a woman out of her car which was immediately swept away in the flood waters on the doorstep of his store. In the end, 20 local businesses signed our resolution for a total of over 660 businesses, labor and faith groups supporting the initiative, which will double solar and wind energy in Maryland and move us away from our reliance on fossil fuels.

I was in disbelief when I saw the shocking footage of the May 27th flooding on social media and checked to make sure I did not mistakenly look at footage from the last 2016 flood. On June 7th, just days after the flood, I went back to Ellicott City to find out how CCAN and I could help. We were in contact with an owner from an oriental rug store on Main Street and I planned to meet him at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the command center for business owners, residents and volunteers. I saw many of those business owners from canvassing last August, including the toy store owner.

Due to safety reasons, access to owners and residents to clean and recover property from their stores and homes was limited from 5PM to 7PM. In order to get a wristband to go to downtown Ellicott City, businesses and residents with photo id badges had to vouch for volunteers as you needed a specific reason to be there. Only credentialed people could get rides to the downtown area on golf carts. The atmosphere was somber as owners hustled to get volunteers credentialed and anxiously waited in a line to get on one of the few golf carts which circulated from the church to the downtown.

Left to right: Volunteer Katie Fry Hester, Mogan Bagha of Mainstreet Oriental Rugs, and Liz Lee of CCAN

I was lucky that the rug store owner helped me receive my red wristband. He was called away with an emergency and could not accompany to the site. On my own, I jumped into the trunk of a golf cart and joined an off-duty Fort Meade Air Force team who came to volunteer for the first time. They were assigned to help two of the businesses very close to the Patapsco River at the bottom of the Main Street hill — so that’s where I would be going to volunteer, too.

We were stopped before entering the downtown area as the police checked our wristbands and reminded us that we could not wander from the volunteer site. Previously over the phone, the rug store owner painted a picture of the distressing conditions of the town and a story of how he watched a displaced beaver walking down the street! Memories of the last flood less than 2 years ago was still fresh in their minds, but this time the damage was much worse due to the sewage main break and tons of mud which many blamed on overdevelopment of surrounding neighborhoods. I would now see this for my own eyes.

I gasped as we drove down the deserted street that resembled an empty movie set, like a set from a natural disaster blockbuster summer movie. But this was real. Huge X’s spray-painted on doors and windows noted the buildings which were damaged and commercial dumpsters sat on each block. My heart sank as we passed by a store front with a banner proudly announcing it’s grand re-opening. This store finally reopened in April after the July 2016 flooding and a month later, it was closed again.

Basements and patios were eroded. An entire 2-story historic establishment collapsed to skelton steel frames, dangling wood planks jutting from walls and piles of brick and rubbish.

After being dropped off by the golf cart at a glass pane store and antique store, the boards securing the doors and windows were removed and we got right to work. The owner of the antique store had been there for years and recently rebuilt her store after the July 2016 flood. The heavy, wet mud, which was a foot and a half deep carpeting the floor, was shoveled into wheelbarrows and dumped on the street for pick-up by street cleaners. Trucks sprinkling the streets with water to keep the dirt level down took turns with police vehicles and golf carts, driving up and down the street. Mountains of piles of insulation and drywall ripped up by volunteers sat in the alley ways. Tons of broken glass from windows, shelving units and precious antique glass items were coated in the deep layers of mud.

I worked with the store owner and volunteers to salvage whatever I could form the mud. We wore 2 layers of rubber gloves to protect us from the glass shards and sewage as we sifted through the thick mud. After the owner spent years collecting rare items, antique vases, and chandeliers, her prized possessions were now all caked in mud.

I was amazed that she knew each piece of jewelry, vase, and drinking glass set by heart and had a story for every piece. Many items were broken and too damaged to be saved and I threw them out into the piles of mud and trash on the street.

That’s me!

But we did recover many items! When she told me that the ring I found in a handful of mud was a diamond ring worth $400, it motivated me to search even harder to salvage more items she could resell. I used a colander and dazzling pairs of earrings and shiny necklaces appeared as the water washed away the mud. When I asked her where to place a fragile porcelain cat, she excitedly told me that it came as a pair. I was disappointed not to find the cat’s twin that evening.

Later, other volunteers who finished helping out another store owner, graciously joined us at the antique store where there was still much to do with the 2 hours of allocated time per day rapidly coming to an end. At one point, the store owner told us to look at a muddy sign she found – it thanked volunteers for helping her rebuild and re-open her store after the July 2016 flood. It was a sad reminder that business owners like her were suffering and having to face this unimaginable challenge once more.

As I finished my shift, I saw business owners in tears, hugging and comforting each other, and each questioning how they would cope and what they were going to do next. Some were simply mourning the loss, while others accepted the painful truth that they could not stay and rebuild there. Given the unpredictable weather patterns, the friend of the store owner said affirmatively that this will not be the last flood in Ellicott City. After I volunteered, I pondered and worried about what would happen to all of the business owners? Will they rebuild again with the looming fear of losing their businesses and livelihood again to yet another inevitable flood? And if they don’t rebuild in Ellicott City, where will they go to start over?

After this recent flood, two downtown Ellicott City business owners signed a Letter to Governor Hogan asking him to stop expanding fossil fuel infrastructure and to support stronger climate policy in Maryland, like the Clean Energy Jobs Act to curb the destructive effects of climate change and flooding. Let’s work together to tell our Maryland legislators and new incoming legislators to pass this bill in 2019 to combat climate change for the sake of our fellow neighbors in Maryland.