Rescue crews spent Memorial Day searching for an Air Force veteran who happened to be eating at a Mexican restaurant. Eddison “Eddie” Hermond, 39, jumped into the rising waters to help save a woman.
Would you believe the same scene unfolded two years ago and two people died in that flood? And shopkeepers were still celebrating their one-year reopenings this month when the 1,000-year flood came again Sunday, 998 years early.
Same thing happened in 1868, but 43 people died. And it happened in 1901, 1917, 1938, 1942, 1972, 1975 and 2011.
And what happens every time? They rebuild.
It is the primary fuel of a small business, faith. Faith to put it all on the line, to risk, to work hard. So this is the ultimate test of that faith for all those owners who stayed after the 2016 flood.
“That’s the big question now, do you return?” said Jeff Braswell, who owns three businesses in the downtown he fell in love with as a little boy. “The problem is, if the coffee shops and restaurants aren’t here, people won’t come for the other shops. We all need to be here for this little town to work.”
Being a small-business owner requires real sacrifices, even without natural disasters. These folks borrow against their homes, ravage their kids’ college funds, take pay cuts for years to make their small businesses work. And still, it doesn’t always work out, with only 50 percent of small businesses making it for five years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Mojan Bagha, owner of Main Street Oriental Rugs, told my Post colleague Michael E. Miller that he’s coming back.
He believes climate change is at least partly to blame for two so-called “thousand-year-floods” in three years. Yet he is optimistic about rebuilding once more.
“This is a great community and a great country,” he said. “Like a phoenix, it will rise from the ashes. Let’s be positive. Let’s think how we can rebuild.”
But Sherry Fackler-Berkowitz has finally had enough.
“We’re out,” said Fackler-Berkowitz, co-owner of the Grate Panes Art Glass Studio, which flooded with nearly four feet of water in 2011, then was hit again in 2016, just as restoration began on historic glass pieces commissioned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“Thirty-nine years in business and we’re done,” Fackler-Berkowitz told WBAL-TV’s Jayne Miller in an emotional and devastating video clip she posted on Twitter. “We can’t afford to, we took everything the last time — all of our savings and everything — to rebuild.”
Ellicott City was built in 1772, and it’s good fun to malign the planners who put the town atop and alongside a river back then. But the planners in those days did a good job of creating a culvert system appropriate for the time, said plumber John Hommerbocker, who repaired damage to Ellicott City buildings after the last flood.
“What they didn’t figure on was all the concrete and asphalt surfaces from all the new developments uphill,” Hommerbocker told the Baltimore Sun. He said it was “40 years of poor planning” that allowed for the latest disasters. “It worked perfectly for 100 years, before all the impervious surfaces were added uphill.”
That’s what property owner Kara Brook also said, as she awaited news on her two buildings.
“There isn’t one thing that caused this situation. It was a convergence of several issues from poor planning to overdevelopment to removal of forests that absorbed heavy rains at the top of Ellicott Mills Drive,” Brook wrote on her Facebook page.
She said she held off on $2 million in repairs until comprehensive, area-wide repairs were made to prevent flood after flood after flood.
“They handled a problem that required financial investment, grit and muscle and tough decision making with public relations campaigns,” she wrote.
Funding for water infrastructure programs finally did come through, just three weeks ago, with a little more than $1 million for flood-mitigation in Ellicott City from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But that will barely get the front-end loaders cranking on a project that’s a $10 million event — for openers.
The planning folks warned everyone this would happen. They issued a 2014 report that detailed what needed to be done to tame those raging waters. And nothing happened. Then, after the 2016 flood, the report was rebooted last June as the “Ellicott City Hydrology/Hydraulic Study and Concept Mitigation Analysis. Conclusion: “The nature and scope of such improvements is significant in scope, impact and cost. It will require a long term planning and implementation effort.”
The danger is another year of inaction.
In this era of government cuts, deregulation, defunding and dismantling, it is important to remember what it takes to help small businesses survive, especially in a place as historic and flood-prone as Ellicott City. Millions of dollars are needed to prevent another flood — not someday. Now.
The small-business owners put a lot of faith in rebuilding. It’s time that their elected leaders reward them for their resilience.
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