The picturesque Main Street of Ellicott City, Maryland, faces a monthslong recovery that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars after devastating flooding left two dead and damaged nearly every home and business along the road, officials said.
The two died when the town about 14 miles west of Baltimore took on 6.5 inches of water Saturday night, most of it between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., sweeping away hundreds of cars, tearing away sidewalks and wrecking storefronts and building foundations.
A Pennsylvania woman visiting the town with her family was one of those killed after their car was caught in the raging floodwaters and carried toward the Patapsco River, police said.
Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman told The Associated Press by telephone that the devastation was the worst he'd seen in 50 years living in the county, including Hurricane Agnes in 1972, which caused the river to overflow its banks.
"It looks like the set of a disaster movie," Kittleman said. "Cars everywhere, cars on top of cars, parts of the road are gone, many parts of the sidewalk are gone, storefronts are completely gone."
Videos posted on social media showed floodwaters rushing down Main Street, which slopes dramatically toward the river, and sweeping away cars. Some vehicles came to rest on top of each other. In one video posted to the Facebook page of an art gallery, several people can be seen forming a human chain to rescue a woman from a car that was being carried down the street by waist-high water.
Baltimore County police, who recovered the victims' bodies on the opposite side of the Patapsco, identified the victims as Jessica Watsula, 35, of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and Joseph Blevins, 38, of Windsor Mill, Maryland. Both were inside vehicles that were overcome by floodwaters. Watsula's relatives were able to escape, and Blevins' girlfriend was rescued, police said.
County officials said at a news conference Sunday that up to five buildings had been destroyed and up to 30 more had significant damage. County officials tweeted Monday morning that 180 inoperable vehicles were towed from the Main Street area to a nearby high school and another 20 are still in the river. Officials will work on moving those cars Monday. County officials also plan a meeting Monday afternoon for area residents and businesses to help them access resources they'll need as they recover.
Courtney Weglein, 35, of Ellicott City headed to the historic downtown to meet friends Saturday night, but when she got to Jonathan Butkus' second-floor apartment, Weglein says water was coming in and the landlord soon said people had to get out. Outside, they found choppy water up to the hoods of cars and Weglein watched as her own car slammed into another.
They realized a teenage boy was in a nearby car and she captured video of Butkus carrying him to safety on his shoulders through knee-high water. As water continued rising she hugged the others there and thought of her 2-year-old son.
"I thought I was going to die and I was never going to see him again," she said. When the water went down, they walked out to find incredible damage, feeling grateful to have survived.
"We didn't realize how bad it was until then," she said. "Then we found out people died and then it hit us."
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan toured the damaged area Sunday along with 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."
Johnny Breidenbach, the owner and chef of Johnny's Bistro on Main, said he closed his restaurant around 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.
Jason Elliott, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Virginia, said the town was hit by a series of strong thunderstorms that dumped heavy rain over a 2-hour period. Other areas nearby received heavy rainfall for only about 30 to 45 minutes, he said.
"It's just a matter of the heavy rain being that long in duration. It just happened to set up over that area," Elliott said.
With so much rainfall, there was nowhere for it to go other than the street.
"Everything funneled toward that Main Street area. There's hills on both sides, the river's on the third side," Elliott said. "In this case the Patapsco River was coming up, too. We believe there's some contributions to the flood from both directions."
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.
The county courthouse and government headquarters are located in Ellicott City but are on higher ground.