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‘It’s even worse’: Ellicott City, Maryland still recovering from 2016 flood, hammered again

A state of emergency was declared on May 27 in Howard County as a massive storm drenched the Baltimore region, triggering flash floods in Ellicott City.

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. — After the deadly flooding of 2016, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman said Ellicott City was reduced to a “war zone” and likened it to the set of a disaster movie. On Monday, Kittleman said the flooding of 2018 was much nastier.

Authorities were still in the assessment stage on a soggy Memorial Day, trying to determine exactly how much worse. Particularly worrying, Kittleman said, is a 25- to 30-foot-wide hole just north of Main Street, where the ground and road appear to have buckled under the weight of the flooding.

“There are a lot of people whose lives are going to be devastated again, and they’ve been working so hard to come back and we just need to be there for them and to tell them … all of our resources are there to help them,” Kittleman said. “I can’t imagine what they’re going through. I couldn’t imagine what they went through two years ago, and now it’s even worse.”

The first concern is people. Emergency responders conducted 30 rescues Monday morning as they continued their search for a missing man, identified as Eddison Hermond.

Sarah Lopez was at a restaurant, attending a birthday party with Hermond when the flooding began, she told CNN. Hermond left to help a woman rescue her cat from a pet store. Witnesses returned and said Hermond slipped into the river and was carried away, said Lopez, whose husband met Hermond 20 years ago in the US Air Force.

As rescuers continue searching for Hermond, there were no reports of deaths or major injuries as of early Monday, Kittleman said. The 2016 flood killed two people, when floodwaters swept away their vehicles.

Gas and electricity have been shut down on Main Street, where water ran through buildings as if it were a tributary of the nearby Patapsco River, which swelled to record levels during Sunday’s storms. The river is a major waterway that feeds into the Chesapeake Bay.

Baltimore Gas & Electric said it will need to survey the damage to its infrastructure before providing a timeline for restoring service.

Flooding claimed the old courthouse, Kittleman said, and there are homes on the west end of downtown whose foundations and basements are gone.

“A lot of the businesses, the first floors are gone, like they were two years ago,” he said.

Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency for Maryland on Sunday.

The rains of 2016

Marked by quaint shops in the bottom floors of brick, stone slab and siding-clad buildings, the historic downtown is a major draw in this community of 66,000 people located about 12 miles west of Baltimore.

Main Street, also known as Frederick Road, was transformed into a waterway over the weekend, as brown water sluiced through town, destroying shops and upending cars. In some areas, the water rose above the buildings’ first floors.

To understand what authorities were surveying Monday, it’s perhaps helpful to understand what happened fewer than two years ago.

After 6 inches of rain fell on the flood-prone community in about two hours, residents say the flooding came from nowhere in 2016. In addition to the two people killed, more than two dozen buildings were heavily damaged or destroyed. Residents formed human chains to pluck their neighbors from the rushing waters.

Kittleman said at the time that it was the worst devastation in Howard County in 50 years, but the town rallied around the slogan “Ellicott City Strong” and got to the arduous work of putting their community back together again.

When the rain came Sunday, many residents remained in the throes of recovery. The county was working on stormwater retention ponds and preparing to install additional piping. Money from a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant had just arrived and was slated for repairs and construction, Kittleman said.

“There are things that we are doing. It just can’t be done in less than two years,” he said. “After the flood in 2016 and working on the recovery there, you can’t get things done in a year or two. It just can’t happen. And you saw, we get the money from FEMA two years later. That’s how it works.”

More than 8 inches in 15 hours

The river rose 17.8 feet in two hours Sunday afternoon, to 24.1 feet, a record from the previous high of 23.6 feet. The National Weather Service, which issued a flash flood warning for southeastern Howard County through early Monday, reported that parts of the greater Baltimore area got isolated rainfall of more than 9 inches. Three to 6 inches was common throughout the metro area.

In parts of Ellicott City, more than 8 inches fell between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. Sunday, the weather service said. The eastern portion of the community saw more than 7 inches in that timespan, while the southwestern side of town received more than 5 inches of the wet stuff.

There are possibilities that another inch could fall, the NWS said, and though that doesn’t sound like much rain, it means trouble for the already saturated ground and burgeoning rivers. Aside from the Patapsco River, there are four other smaller waterways running through and around Ellicott City.

The Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services urged residents to evacuate downtown or move to higher ground while rescue teams fanned out through the area. They’re being asked to stay away from Main Street until authorities can ensure buildings are safe to enter. The Roger Carter Community Center is open for those who need a place to shelter.

‘It’s just devastating’

Gov. Hogan toured the area Sunday with Kittleman. He lamented the destruction, noting that just two weeks earlier, he had visited the historic downtown and spoken with business owners about rebuilding efforts.

“The place looked terrific,” he said. “It’s just devastating because people have their lives tied up in this and went through a heck of a lot and came back and now they’re starting all over again.”

Kittleman expressed confidence Monday that Ellicott City could make another comeback.

“This is where we’re one Howard again, and we’ll be one Ellicott City,” he said. “We will be stronger in the future. We really will, folks. This is not a place that gives in. We didn’t give in in 2016. We’re not going to give in in 2018.”

Asked what he’d say to downtown business owners who have their doubts about reopening after being hammered twice in 22 months, Kittleman said he sees their side of things.

“I can totally understand what they’re saying. If I was in their shoes, I’d probably be reassessing that myself.”