Sally Tennant is assisting holiday shoppers as they browse the jewelry, handcrafted pieces of pottery and miniature glass figurines that fill her store.
Aside from the man in rubber gloves cleaning bits of mud from some of the merchandise, and a large tarp that blocks a construction crew from view, there are few signs of the flood that nearly destroyed the Ellicott City, Md., shop this summer.
“It is hard to remember how bad it was,” Tennant says.
The 62-year-old mother of two was featured in a Washington Post story in September about the impact of the July 30 flood, which drove her to the roof of her building and destroyed much of her gift shop, called Discoveries, as well as her apartment and car.
After months of cleanup and repair work, aided by donations and the assistance of strangers, Tennant is slowly regaining her livelihood and the business she has owned since the early 1980s.
Discoveries reopened for business the day after Thanksgiving, following repairs that so far have cost $50,000, and held a grand celebration Friday night. It has been a struggle, Tennant says, with foot traffic down on Main Street because so many restaurants are still closed and there are strict new parking restrictions in place.
To help make ends meet, Tennant sold merchandise at farmers markets this fall. She is working with Howard County Community College students to launch a website where she can also hawk her wares.
“We’re just inching our way back,” said Tennant, who since the flood has lived in the basement media room of a Baltimore County split-level that her son shares with three buddies. She says she hopes to return to her apartment. But for now, her priority is her store.
Discoveries is one of 75 out of 141 businesses damaged in the flood that have reopened, according to the Howard County Economic Development Authority. Some affected businesses have moved, or their owners decided not to reopen. Others are planning to return over the next six months, city officials said. Boarded-up storefronts and “coming soon” signs dot the once-vibrant downtown.
City and state officials, including Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), have participated in events recently to encourage shopping along Main Street. Anthony Cordo, the executive director of the Howard County tourism council, said Manor Hill Taproom plans to open in January and E.C. Pops will open in April.
Tennant said she would not have been able to reopen for the holidays without the help of volunteers like the man with the yellow rubber gloves, Jim Halcomb, a retired cryptologist at the National Security Agency.
Halcomb, who lives in nearby Columbia, has childhood memories of visiting his grandmother’s shop along the Miami River in Ohio after she experienced flooding. He said he could not imagine seeing his income and his life’s work “evaporate” in a matter of hours, and he never expected to see the “wreckage” wrought by the 17-foot waves that swept through Main Street.
He started hauling mud and debris the first day the county allowed volunteers near the buildings. And he has never left. He mostly works at Discoveries but has also volunteered at Park Ridge Trading Company and Attic Antiques ’n Things, which is owned by an elderly couple.
“It’s been a wonderful experience,” Halcomb said. “It’s been an honor to work with all of these people, including Sally. It’s really touching to see the resilience of all of them.”
More than $12,000 has been donated to a GoFundMe page set up by Tennant’s friend and store manager, Sue Taylor, to help with the cost of replacing the knocked-out glass storefront, restoring the floorboards and repairing electricity and plumbing. Tennant also received about $16,000 in grant money from the Ellicott City Partnership — about half of what she said she was told to expect.
Her latest worries: an order from the county to make nearly $20,000 in sewer-system improvements, and an estimate that it will cost $80,000 to fully restore her business and apartment.
While some other Ellicott City business have sought federal loans to help with rebuilding costs — Cordo said 32 loans totaling $2.9 million either have been approved or are in the process of approval from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the state Department of Housing and Community Development, and the Howard County Economic Development Authority — Tennant said she opted not to apply.
“When you put losses on top of losses and then you’re going to put a loan on top of that? I can’t,” she said. “I am too old to be going in debt.”
Tennant said she is using all of the resources she has set aside over the years, including savings and retirement money, to repair damage from the flood. She had no insurance on the building, which was paid off, or for her business. She opted against a policy years ago, after she had trouble collecting payment for claims following thefts in her now-closed store at the Columbia Mall.
Without the volunteer help she has received, Tennant said, “it would take me a year, maybe two — or maybe never” to reopen.
“That good element of people showing up in my life are really the counterforce of all the bad” that came on the night of the flood, she said. “If I had to do that all by myself, I don’t know if I could get it done.”