Since Saturday’s record-breaking flash flood that left Ellicott City’s historic Main Street devastated, dozens of images and videos have surfaced on social media showcasing the water’s violent rage. One video, shot from the second floor dining room of Portalli’s Italian Restaurant, captures the flash flood picking up cars and sailing them down the road. It’s at about 3 minutes 55 seconds into the video’s pacing when the same videographer witnesses two people clinging desperately to a car and another person swept into the doorway of the restaurant Cacao Lane.
That trio: Sarah Huber, Mina Harrison and Natalie Walterhoefer work together at Sweet Elizabeth Jane, where this reporter also works part-time.
Moments earlier the three were preparing to close the boutique, when things suddenly took a turn for the worse.
“I mean, it’s so ordinary around here,” Huber says of heavy rain in Ellicott City.
But as the rain picked up, there were signs this wasn’t an ordinary flood.
“It was getting misty [inside the boutique]. We could hear the water rushing outside, but we didn’t think anything of it.”
The shop’s famous “God Save Our Queen” sign that hangs prominently by the cash register fell and “all of a sudden the store started shaking like an earthquake and water started seeping up through the floor,” Huber says.
Obviously, it was then the three realized they had to get out. They grabbed what they could of their belongings from the break room and rushed outside where they stood deliberating what to do and placed a frantic call to the store’s general manager, Mariah Cohee. Meanwhile, racks of clothing came spilling out of the boutique as the walls caved in. Water rushed in blowing out the storefront windows. A rising and raging river in front of them and a dilapidating store behind them, the three held hands and braved the waters.
“The current was too strong,” says Huber. “Natalie slipped and fell. And then she literally disappeared.”
Natalie Walterhoefer, by sheer luck, made it to the doorway of the nearby restaurant, Cacao Lane, where an employee eventually rescued her. She soon linked up with a group led by a Cacao Lane employee—they escaped through the hills to a nearby house.
“I felt like I was in a video game,” says Walterhoefer. “I was surviving one disaster right after another.”
Back outside, Huber and Harrison found fleeting refuge on a floating car.
“I grabbed onto a windshield wiper,” she says. “I was, like, ‘Are you serious?’”
The two floated their way on the car to the Tiber Alley courtyard where the water wasn’t yet as treacherous. There they encountered a lone man stranded. Residents of the apartment overlooking the Tiber Alley happened to be on their balcony taking in the drama—they caught sight of the stranded group just as a wave overtook them. Harrison, who is petite, was having trouble holding herself up against the rising waters. The unidentified man helped pull her to the safety of the apartment.
“That man basically saved my life,” Harrison commented in a Facebook post.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Huber says. “I thought it was the end of the world.”
The rain accumulated to more than 6 inches that night. The flood claimed two lives, that of Jessica Watsula, 35, of Lebanon, Pa., and Joseph Blevins, 38, of Windsor Mill, Md., and it has complicated many others. In the disaster’s wake, Ellicott City is left with gaping holes in the streets, eviscerated ground levels of businesses and homes, and wrecked cars—devastation.
Sweet Elizabeth Jane, which hours before had been bustling with customers, was completely destroyed.
A personal aside: I discovered the carefully curated little shop one fall afternoon in 2013, and once I started working there, I found an extended family. I’m left completely heartbroken. The five-year-old store’s Facebook page reflects positivity and optimism, thanking the community for the outpouring of support and declaring a fresh restart soon. Despite being quite sad, I’m hopeful we’ll recharge and open doors down the line.