Sally Tennant sorts through the mud-covered shelves of her craft boutique in Ellicott City, Md., after flash flooding filled the shop in July. (Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

Since the flood, the man cave has become a “mom cave.”

Sally Tennant sleeps on a twin bed sandwiched between six leather home-theater seats and a 100-inch screen in the basement of the Baltimore County split-level that her son Brody, 24, shares with three buddies.

Near the foot of the bed, scattered across two bath towels, are hundreds of rings, bracelets, earrings and necklaces that Tennant, her friends and several volunteers have pulled from the mud in the ruins of her Ellicott City store in the weeks since vicious floodwaters thrashed the historic downtown.

The July 30 flood, one of the worst in Maryland’s history, killed two people and damaged scores of buildings, including the one in which Tennant lived and owned a lively and eclectic shop called Discoveries. The storm also destroyed her red Honda Civic, which had been parked not far from her building.

Until that day, Tennant, 62, felt as if she had the rest of her life mapped out.

Now, she is trying to figure out how to put what is left of it back together.

“For me to face going in debt after busting my buns for my whole life, to own the building outright, to not be in debt, and then to face this kind of massive debt,” Tennant said, shaking her head. “Thirty-five years of my life is in that store, and it’s gone.”


Sally Tennant retrieves artists’ prints that may be salvageable from her gift shop, Discoveries. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
The shop of her dreams

Tennant, who grew up in Ellicott City, has always been independent, feisty and, she says, “a little mouthy.”

A drug counselor who worked with addicts at a psychiatric hospital in Baltimore in the early 1980s, she dreamed of owning a business selling jewelry and artwork that people couldn’t find anywhere else.

Her driving route to the hospital from the West Friendship section of Howard County took her down Main Street in quaint Ellicott City. As she drove, she would glance at the brick-and-wood buildings and storefronts, checking to see what was for rent or for sale.

In 1981, she opened her shop in rented space. A couple of years later, she and her then-husband bought the 86-year-old building across the street, at 8055 Main Street, part of which sits suspended over the Tiber River. The price was $113,000.

Discoveries occupied the first floor, filled to overflowing with handcrafted jewelry, pottery, creative home accents and colorful retro clothing.

At first, Tennant and her husband rented out the two small one-bedroom apartments located above the shop. After her marriage ended, she and her sons moved in. Each son got a bedroom in a different apartment. Tennant slept on the couch in one of the living areas.

It was difficult, she said, raising boys in an apartment, with little room to horse around and no place nearby to throw a baseball, “but we made do.”

She paid the mortgage off about 10 years ago and at that point gave up her property insurance, preferring to cover any expenses out of pocket. She also did not have flood insurance.

‘Like an ocean’

Flooding is common in Ellicott City, an old mill town located by the Tiber and Patapsco rivers. The worst was recorded in 1868, when the Patapsco River rose five feet in 10 minutes. But Tennant said there were no special warnings about the particularly severe weather that arrived the last Saturday in July.


Cars that were swept away in the deluge were still resting downstream days later, on Aug. 3. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The forecast did say heavy rain, so Tennant did all the things she normally would do to prevent damage, including starting the sump pump in her basement.

She considered moving her car to higher ground, but decided against it.

Then nearly six inches of rain fell in two hours, a prolonged downpour that the National Weather Service labeled a once-in-a-millennium event.

Tennant saw water climbing up the stairs to her second-floor apartment and decided this was like no other flood she’d experienced.

“There was an intensity,” she said. “Like an ocean coming down.”

When no one answered her 911 calls, she started to worry. She frantically dialed her sons to tell them she was trapped.

Soon, Tennant headed to the roof, clutching a small red suitcase with Darth Vader, her beloved 17-year-old cat, zipped inside. From the adjoining roof of the next building, two of her neighbors yelled that they would go down to their second floor and pull her through a window.

“I’m not a little skinny girl,” Tennant thought to herself. But she managed to push as they pulled, bruising the soft flesh of her stomach in the process.

Worried that the stairs and landing were unsafe, Tennant and her neighbors yelled to firefighters, who tested the structure’s integrity and escorted them from the building.

Two days later, county employees in utility vehicles drove Tennant and other business owners to their buildings so they could survey the damage.

None of the owners could get out to take a closer look, but Tennant could see that her large, plate-glass store windows were missing, shattered by the violent water. Display cabinets were overturned. Merchandise was strewn throughout the store.


Tennant outside her store on the first day that residents and business owners were allowed to start cleaning up. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
With the help of strangers

Over the next few weeks, she began a scavenger hunt of sorts, digging through mud and ruined merchandise for hours at a time in search of undamaged pieces of jewelry, pottery and other artwork.

Beside her most days is Sue Taylor, her store manager and “BFF” since elementary school. And often joining them are people who first stepped through the door as strangers.

There’s Jason Albersheim, a 23-year-old graduate student from Rockville. And there are church volunteers, including members of Metanoia Church in Ellicott City and Jim Chung, a youth pastor at South Columbia Baptist Church who shows up with members of hischurch youth group.

Albersheim came to Main Street a couple of weeks after the flood, hoping to provide whatever assistance he could. The county assigned him to a water station, leery of dispatching him or other volunteers to buildings that could be in danger of collapse. One day, Tennant, her dark-blond hair drenched in sweat and her T-shirt and shorts covered in mud, stopped for a cold bottle of water.

“I’m too old for this,” she said, exasperated.


Tennant cools off on Aug. 7, the first day that residents and business owners were allowed to start cleaning up after the massive flood. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Albersheim left the water station, followed her to the store and started hauling out debris.

“There was overstaffing where I was,” he said. “And there was understaffing with the business owners. I went where I was needed.”

He has gone back to Tennant’s shop about 10 more times, often bringing friends to help.

When the church youth group finishes for the day, each of the young men says a prayer. They pray for Tennant and her recovery efforts. One teenager recently thanked God that the group was able to save so many of her pieces.

“It’s humbling,” Tennant said. “I never thought I’d be in a position of dependence on other people, to be this vulnerable.”

Tennant is not one to fall apart easily. “It is what it is” has become her mantra.

But since losing her home and her business, she has had moments when she just couldn’t hold it all in including the day after the flood, when she got a call from her dentist’s office, where she owed more than $2,000.

The staff had heard about the flood, the receptionist said, and wanted to do something to help. The dentist decided to forgive her bill.

“They didn’t have to do that,” Tennant recalled the other day. “I cried, because they don’t have to do that.”

A makeshift home

After she was rescued by the firefighters, a friend gave Tennant a ride to Target, where she met Brody and picked up a toothbrush, deodorant and cat litter for Darth Vader.

It was midnight when they reached his house in Catonsville. Brody’s housemate, Brad Wandell, was watching a movie with a date in the basement theater that was about to become Tennant’s makeshift home.

“I think they were getting romantic,” she recalled one recent night, cutting mushrooms, onions and peppers she had received from a food bank and was planning to grill. Wandell, glancing at Brody, quietly chuckled, too.


Tennant jokes with her son Brody, 24, right, and his roommate Evan Farragher, 27, as they prepare dinner on Aug. 30 in Catonsville, Md. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Tennant said she is grateful to her son and his friends for letting her stay, and the men said they have empathy for their long-term guest. “I think it’s comforting for her to know not everything is gone,” Brody said, glancing over at his mom. “I’m still here.”

But they also have found her to be “like part of the gang now,” said Evan Farragher, 27. And the kitchen is definitely better stocked than before she arrived.

“I’ve probably gained about 10 to 15 pounds since you moved in,” said Wandell, 26, who has known Tennant since he was in high school.

“You have been feeding us massive amounts of sweets,” Brody said.

“Well, if I want a blueberry pie, I can buy it and know the rest is going to get eaten,” Tennant replied.

Tennant said she and her son haven’t talked about how long she will stay with him. Thecounty offered her a temporary rental for 30 or maybe 60 days, she said, but she opted against it.

“I just can’t imagine being alone right now,” she said. “I really think I’d be depressed.”


Tennant watches a news report about the Ellicott City flooding from her new bedroom — the home theater at the house in Catonsville where her son lives with three buddies and a dog. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Tennant said she often finds herself overwhelmed by the mounds of paperwork she has to go through from the county regarding financial disaster assistance. She has compiled a binder about federal loans and grants she can apply for, but it is hard to imagine how she will manage to rebuild.

In the meantime, she has made the home theater, with its oversize screen and Baltimore Ravens-inspired purple carpet and gold-colored walls, into her bedroom and storage area.

She said she “dodged a bullet” during the Ravens’ home opener last week because three of her housemates were out of town and the fourth “was probably too polite” to ask her to clean up the area around the big screen.

“I think I better take care of that issue” before Sunday’s 1 p.m. kickoff against the Cleveland Browns, Tennant said.