Flood doesn’t drown most dreams

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Robert Friedman

Joan Eve Shea-Cohen stands in her Classics and Collectibles shop on Ellicott City’s Main Street in a photo taken before it was devastated by a flood on July 30. She, like many other business owners, is now in the midst of the arduous process of clearing out the damage and rebuilding. At least 90 businesses and 190 residents suffered significant losses from the 6.5 inches of rain that fell in just three hours.
Photo courtesy of Joan Eve Shea-Cohen

“I’ve lost everything — furniture, jewelry, glassware, sterling, crystal chandeliers — I’m lucky to be alive. But I’m going back. Absolutely.”

Those are the words of Joan Eve Shea-Cohen, the 73-year-old owner of the Classics and Collectibles antique shop, which was left in shambles — like so many other businesses along Main Street in Ellicott City — after the devastating July 30 flood.

Shea-Cohen’s words are being echoed by just about all the other Ellicott City entrepreneurs and residents forced from their business and living quarters, according to Maureen Sweeney Smith, executive director of the Ellicott City Partnership. The organization represents the businesses in the city’s Old Town, where the flood caused the most damage.

“I would say that 90 percent of the people affected by the flood are determined to come back,” Sweeney Smith said. A few have said, ‘See you later.’ But for the most part, people want to come back.”

A total of 90 businesses and 190 residents in 107 households were affected by the flood that ravaged Old Town, and its Main Street in particular, she said.

The massive rainfall that caused the devastating flash flood has been described as a 1-in-1,000-year event. The storm killed two people and dumped 6.5 inches of rain on Ellicott City in about three hours, according to the National Weather Service.

The flood claimed another victim on Sept. 8, when John Peter Pacylowski Jr., 67, owner of  the store Precious Gifts, died after a fall from scaffolding while making repairs to his flood-damaged store. The store has been on Main Street since 1991.

Resolved to return

Baltimore native Shea-Cohen has had an antiques store on Main Street since 2000. In 2013, she expanded the business and moved to the lower part of the street, which got hit by more flood waters than anywhere else.

“I [left] the store at 6 p.m., closing time. Everything happened just a little after that. If I would have been there when the storm hit, I’m sure I would have tried to move things, and I would have been trapped.

“There would have been no way out. A car crashed through the window, and the water [apparently] came through like Niagara Falls. I’m lucky to be alive,” she recounted.

Nevertheless, Shea-Cohen said she will return to the same location once it is fixed up. “I have a wonderful landlord and wonderful customers,” she said.

Robin Holliday, owner of the now-shuttered HorseSpirit Art Gallery, also on lower Main Street, said she was not going anywhere else to fulfill her lifelong passion to own an art gallery.

“I gave up my job of 26 years in national security,” said the 54-year-old Holliday. “All my life I’ve wanted an art gallery. The flood is not going to get me down.”

She noted that her landlord “has been very good to us,” and already has replaced the heating and cooling system, ripped out ruined dry wall and replaced the floor. Holliday said she planned to reopen by the end of September.

Insurance woes

Like many of the Ellicott City business people who suffered flood damage, Holliday appears to be having a difficult time with her insurance company

She told the Beacon that she bought a policy that covers $150,000 in damages, but the company told her the policy would only pay $2,500 in flood damages. She has filed a complaint with the state and hired a lawyer.

“We’ve had about $55,000 in damages to the art on the first floor” of the two-story gallery. “We’re very upset about the insurance company, and we’re not going down without a fight,” she said.

Holliday said she may take out a small business loan to get the gallery going again. She has raised about $17,000 so far through a GoFundMe campaign. (GoFundMe is a “crowdfunding” website that allows individuals to collect donations online for any personal cause.) 

Shea-Cohen also has a GoFundMe page that has raised more than $4,200 so far. “I am so grateful to those who are helping the store rebuild,” she said.

Steven McDermott — who has owned the Southwest Connection and Fudge Shop on Main Street for 27 years — told the Baltimore Sun that his business interruption insurance policy would result in no payment for the flood.

He said he did not buy a specific flood insurance policy because it was too expensive. “If we had a fire or an earthquake or civil unrest, it’s covered. But because it’s a flood, we get nothing,” he said. 

Tom Shoemaker didn’t believe he needed flood insurance for his Shoemaker Country custom furniture, home furnishings and gifts store on Main Street. The two-story building in which the business was located had undergone a “very strong, solid rebuilding” after a 1999 fire.

While the windows withstood the flood, the onrushing waters broke through the two adjoining front doors and filled the first floor with five feet of water.

Shoemaker, who is 71, has been “a continuing part of the Ellicott City community for 15 years.” He and his family opened a smaller arts and crafts store on the street in 2001 before moving in 2003 to their current location.

Shoemaker said that he intends to reopen the store, which he owns with wife, Susan, possibly by the end of September or October.

“This is a family business” he said, “and as a family and a business we have to keep going.”

He noted that he and his sons, John and Michael, will continue to design and build custom furniture while the store is being brought back into shape.

Hoping to be home soon

For three comfortable years, Kelly Zimmerman and husband Scott had been living in a large apartment on the top floor above the Salon Marielle beauty shop on Main Street. As the flood hit, they felt the building shake, and when they went to their front door, they saw a 12-foot sinkhole.

Ellicott City-raised Zimmerman said she didn’t panic. “This was my second flood, and we had contact with neighbors who were going to bring over a ladder,” she said.

The ladder did not show, but firemen did. They broke a “two-or-three-foot hole” in the apartment wall and Kelly, Scott and their four cats squeezed through. “The carriers in which we put the cats couldn’t fit through the hole, [so] we had to wrap them in towels,” she said.

Zimmerman, who works in marketing, is now also a volunteer at the Ellicott City Partnership.  She hopes to move back into her apartment by the end of the month.

“I love this town — it’s the people, the community, everyone working side by side to help everyone else out. I’m not leaving,” she said.

Sweeney Smith of Ellicott City Partnership said that, as of the beginning of September, the organization had collected $500,000 in donations that it was starting to give out to Old Town residents and merchants “to get them through the next few weeks. There will be rebuilding funds later.”

Man-made problems?

Since 2001, developers have submitted more than 100 proposals to build homes, shopping centers and other buildings over an area of less than three square miles around Ellicott City, and most applications have been approved, the Baltimore Sun reported. Dozens of those developments are near the Tiber and Hudson banks.

During July’s flash flood, the Tiber and Hudson tributaries — one of which flows under Main Street before converging with the other — overflowed, putting the downtown shopping, dining and residential district in the path of a raging river, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It found evidence that the Hudson branch rose as much as eight feet in a concrete bed at Rogers Avenue and Frederick Road, where the stream there is normally a trickle.

Reports also noted that while Ellicott City flooding used to come from a rising Patapsco River at the bottom of Main Street, floods now come from higher ground because of the increase in development on the hilly terrain overlooking the 244-year-old river town. More development means more pavement, and less soil and plants to absorb water in a rain storm.

During July’s flood, waters reportedly pushed 50 cars and about 50 tons of debris into the three tributaries, making a bad situation even worse. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been busy removing this debris from Ellicott City’s waterways to reduce the risk of future flooding in the historic Howard County town.

“There’s nothing we can do to stop six inches of rain,” County Executive Allan Kittleman said. “But we can have an impact on other storms.”

Many storm water improvements will be expedited, he said. In the meantime, he said he was heartened to see the reopening of some businesses.

“Step by step, life is returning to Ellicott City. While we still have much work to do, [the] openings are a sign of the progress we are making,” Kittleman said. “I have been saying all along, this recovery effort will take time. But we are grateful for each day’s progress.”

Further information from the Ellicott City Partnership is available at www.HelpEllicottCity.com or by calling (410) 579-2594.