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Historic Maryland town faces long recovery after flooding

Workers gather by street damage after Saturday night’s flooding in Ellicott City, Md., Sunday, July 31, 2016. Historic, low-lying Ellicott City, Maryland, was ravaged by floodwaters Saturday night, killing a few people and causing devastating damage to homes and businesses, officials said. (Kevin Rector / Baltimore Sun via Associated Press)
Workers gather by street damage after Saturday night’s flooding in Ellicott City, Md., Sunday, July 31, 2016. Historic, low-lying Ellicott City, Maryland, was ravaged by floodwaters Saturday night, killing a few people and causing devastating damage to homes and businesses, officials said. (Kevin Rector / Baltimore Sun via Associated Press)
By Juliet Linderman and Ben Nuckols Associated Press

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. – The picturesque main street of Ellicott City – quaint with brightly colored storefronts – was in shambles Monday, two days after a catastrophic storm ripped through town, shattering glass windows, swallowing cars, demolishing structures and devouring their foundations.

Severely damaged were antique shops, restaurants, a toy store and a beloved bar steps from the Patapsco River that local officials say opened their doors to feed rescue crews who responded to a fatal train derailment, the small city’s last disaster.

This disaster though, was different: The magnitude of the storm threatened to wash away the historic boulevard, leaving behind waterlogged remnants of what stood there before.

The storm claimed the lives of two visitors, Jessica Watsula and Joseph Blevins, whose cars were swept into the Patapsco River’s raging waters.

As the rain fell and the waters rose, residents rushed into harm’s way to rescue each other. One group formed a human chain to save a trapped motorist; Jonathan Butkus, 37, raced into the waist-deep water and carried a teenager out of a car on his shoulders.

“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” he said. “On Sunday, I woke up shaking. We could have all died. It was like Armageddon.”

Butkus lives on Main Street, above a carpet shop, and said that about 7:30 p.m. Saturday water began rushing through his back door with alarming force. When he went downstairs, he found the streets flooded. Cars, he said, “were like napkins blowing in the wind.”

When he noticed a teenager stuck in a car he immediately jumped into the water and raced toward him.

“It was a fight or flight situation; I didn’t even think about it.” As he ran back across the street, debris was rushing toward them, he said. “It was like a warzone.”

Watsula cried, “God help us!” moments before she was lost to the flood waters, her brother said Monday.

In a telephone interview, Curtis Brubaker relayed his wife’s Christina’s account of the ordeal. He said she and two other family members were with Watsula but survived.

Brubaker, of Dover, Pennsylvania, said Watsula had left her 10-year-old daughter Sarah with him while she went to dinner Saturday with Christina, Brubaker’s mother-in-law and his sister-in-law.

He said Christina told him the women left the restaurant during a downpour and got into Watsula’s Ford Focus compact car. Within seconds, a wave up to the car doors started pushing it down the street, Brubaker said.

He said Christina told him the women climbed out of the car and grabbed a utility pole but Christina couldn’t hold on.

“My wife said the last thing she heard was my sister saying, “God help us! God help us!” Brubaker said.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan toured the damaged area Sunday along with Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman and U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, who has an office in the town. Hogan declared a state of emergency, which will allow greater aid coordination and assistance.

“No one has ever seen devastation like this in Ellicott City or anywhere in Howard County,” Kittleman said. “There are a lot of businesses that are going to be hurting for a long time. There are a lot of people that lost their apartments and their homes.”

On Monday construction crews crowded Main Street, using cranes to clear debris. A tree had fallen directly into one store, bisecting it. A hair salon’s display window remained intact, with rows of shampoos and conditioners and a sign advertising ammonia-free hair color. But below the floorboards, its foundation had been entirely demolished.

The sign hanging above Joan Eve Classics and Collectibles antique shop was in pristine condition, but the shop itself had been ripped apart; on Monday, a giant slab of brick lay across a chunk of concrete, the entryway and walls crumbled to the ground. Just outside, a massive hole had opened up in the sidewalk. Three colorful bird and butterfly mobiles hung from the rafters outside of the Forget Me Not Factory hobby shop down the street, where a cherubic fairy with pink, purple and mint green wings clutched a magic wand on its painted sign. But the doors were flung open to expose a mud-caked floor and the shop’s contents toppled, broken and strewn across the store.

Johnny Breidenbach, the owner and chef of Johnny’s Bistro on Main, said he closed his restaurant about 7:30 Saturday night, before the worst of the flooding, and he hadn’t been able to get back there to assess the damage.

“They told me that the door was totally ripped away from the hinges, and I don’t know how much water I have inside,” Breidenbach told the AP by phone Sunday.

He said Ellicott City would recover eventually, but some business owners may not be able to wait long enough to reopen.

“I could be one of those people,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski toured the affected area Monday and said she and Hogan are working together to apply for federal funds for individuals, business and the local government. The acts of bravery during the storm, she said, “took my breath away.”

Ellicott City was established in 1772 as a mill town along the Patapsco, and many 18th and 19th century buildings were still intact before Saturday’s floods. Once a home to mill workers, in recent decades it has become known for restaurants, art galleries, antique shops and nightlife. Main Street slopes dramatically toward the river and has long been susceptible to flooding.

Kittleman did not say how many of the businesses had flood insurance, but Megan Clark, who owns a toy store on Main Street, said she decided against purchasing a policy because it would have cost her $300 a month.

“Flood insurance was just insane down here,” she said. “Fifty percent of the owners probably didn’t have insurance, so it’s going to be left to whatever we can come up with together to help everyone get back in their stores.”

Ed McDonough, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said officials won’t have a comprehensive damage estimate until building inspectors say damaged structures are stable enough for closer examination.

On Monday evening, Kittleman hosted a packed community meeting to share resources with residents who suffered damage. He pledged to develop a master plan to prevent future flooding disasters.

“I don’t think anything could have stopped this tragedy,” he said, “but, as you know, we have flooding. Now, unfortunately, in some ways, it’s an opportunity for us to make some changes.”

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