Exactly 13 weeks after a flash flood of historic proportions devastated Ellicott City’s Historic District, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman cut a ribbon on Oct. 29, declaring Main Street officially open for business again.
Some businesses did reopen a bit earlier and others have yet to finish rebuilding, but normal economic activity is once again beginning to flow back into the city, albeit at a much more measured pace than the floodwaters. Main Street reopened to vehicle and pedestrian traffic on Oct. 6.
During an Oct. 7 walking tour of Main Street, Sen. Ben Cardin observed the recovery process and visited businesses to offer encouragement, gauge the amount of assistance still needed and hear the stories of determination.
The Beatles-themed Obladi hotel on Main Street ceased commercial operations in 2013 and Beatles music can no longer be heard through open windows there, but at each stop on his visit Cardin heard variations on a suitable lyric made popular by the Fab Four: “We get by with a little help from our friends.”
That help, to date, has included more than 50 event- and sales-based fundraisers; 50 business-specific GoFundMe campaigns; matching funds provided by area businesses; free or discounted services for displaced business owners and their employees; and sweat equity donated by thousands of cleanup volunteers. Turf Valley Resort has provided free sales space for displaced businesses, and the Howard Hughes Corp. has offered free furnished office space in the interim.
“We’re going to continue our efforts [at the federal level] because we want to see more shops open,” Cardin said. “We know we have a lot more work to do.”
He was accompanied on the tour by Kittleman, state Del. Robert Flanagan and Howard County Council Chair Calvin Ball.
Tersiguel’s French Country Restaurant reopened on Oct. 26.
“I think the greatest hurdle … was you had an emergency crisis, and then you had a construction project,” said Chef/Owner Michel Tersiguel. “None of us were prepared for that [combination]. I think I’ve become a project manager now.”
The basement of the Antique Depot, on Maryland Avenue, was inundated with a foot of water and two-to-three inches of mud. Owner David Robeson said he lost about 6% of his total business after a number of consignment tenants left, but new ones are beginning to take their place in a brighter, cheerier setting that followed renovations.
“Daily business has been dependent on what [work crews] are doing out front; some days are really good and some days are really bad,” he said.
Christopher Robeson, his son, added that the Antique Depot continues to receive unexpected assistance from complete strangers. “People are actually finding figurines from the shop floating in the Chesapeake Bay, still protected by bubble wrap, and they’ve been returning things they find to us,” he said.
Furniture and decor store Su Casa closed for seven weeks, taking about four weeks to complete repairs. “We were lucky in not having significant damage from a structural or mechanical standpoint,” said Owner Nicholas Johnson. “All the people who did the work were my employees, so we did not have to lay them off.”
Many of the employees at the next-door La Palapa restaurant feared they might not be as lucky, but Owner Simon Cortes said many Howard County restaurants helped by temporarily hiring his staff with the understanding that they would return when La Palapa reopened.
“We, like so many other people, don’t have flood insurance and a lot of [repairs] are out-of-pocket, so you try to cut costs doing a lot of the stuff that you can yourself,” Cortes said.
La Palapa has been approved for low-interest and no-interest loans being made available through the Small Business Administration.
“Our landlord, [Don] Reuwer, has been really great and very helpful,” Cortes said. “It’s tough to drive down the street and see all the other businesses in distress. We need to get the word out that we’re open, come down and visit us. While we are reopened, we’ve all got a lot of making up to do.”
Steps to Prevention
In addition to supporting the rebuilding effort, elected officials are equally interested in taking steps to prevent (or mitigate) the risk of future flooding in the natural drainage area. On Oct. 12, Kittleman announced $3.8 in flood remediation projects addressing issues that threaten Ellicott City’s Main Street, West End and Valley Mede communities.
The funding covers six projects, ranging from retaining wall reconstruction and stream bank stabilization to targeted watershed studies, and also includes a $1.7 million Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) grant to repair a retaining wall between Parking Lots E and F, a stream wall behind Precious Gifts near Old Columbia Pike, and a stream wall at the Ellicott Mills Brewing Co., near Court Avenue. The work is expected to be completed by next summer.
“While studies such as the hydrologic and hydraulic assessment will be important in helping us develop long-term mitigation plans, we already have identified some areas where we can take steps quickly,” Kittleman said. “It is important to use the funds available to work on these high-impact projects.”
Some of these projects could begin by the end of the current calendar year, he said, adding that the county will also concentrate on clearing debris from the Hudson Stream Channel in the West End and rebuilding a collapsed retaining wall on Main Street.
More Work Ahead
The county will begin a project in 2017 to stabilize an eroded, collapsed stream bank along Longview Drive, in Valley Mede, and will conduct a joint study with the State Highway Administration to evaluate existing culverts along Route 40 and within the Valley Mede community, and make necessary culvert improvements.
Kittleman met with 20 Valley Mede residents on Oct. 13 to see the stream bank damage first-hand, provide an update on projects and listen to residents’ concerns.
Paul Combs, a homeowner whose property adjoins the stream with the collapsed bank, said he lost a furnace and water heater when his basement was flooded with seven-and-a-half feet of water in the July storm, and the basement of a neighbor across the stream also flooded up to the exposed ceiling beams.
“I’ve been here 55 years, and we’ve had flooding in the past, but that was about a foot of water in our backyard, which sits lower than the house,” he said. “We’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Kittleman and Mark DeLuca, chief of the county’s Bureau of Environmental Services, acknowledged that there are additional difficulties tied to stormwater drains located on private easements, the inability of the county to access private property (except in emergency situations) and significant constraints put in place by environmental agencies.
“There’s a bureaucracy, and we’ve been told we can’t work in streams from March through July when the fish are spawning, so that limits the windows we have for getting things done,” Kittleman said.
Nevertheless, he pledged to examine all of the options that are available to the county.
“I made a commitment when I took office to address these flooding issues in Ellicott City,” Kittleman said. “It’s a quality of life issue for those who live here, and I am committed to making sure we move forward with these critical projects to strengthen our infrastructure for future storm events.”