On a brisk late November morning, Jon Weinstein spoke at the tail end of a ribbon-cutting ceremony rededicating Ellicott City’s historic Main Street district. Members of Maryland’s congressional delegation, State House representatives, and Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman all got to say a few words.
But as the County Council member representing Ellicott City, Weinstein might have felt the poignancy of the occasion a bit more keenly than the rest. In fact, a couple of times as he spoke, Weinstein, standing on the steps of the Howard County Tourism and Promotion Welcome Center, paused to choke back tears.
“I can’t look out on this crowd without seeing the face of somebody who was here on the street that day,” said Weinstein, who last month was appointed Howard County Council chairperson, to about 400 people.
“That day” was Sunday, July 31, 2016, after heavy rains the night before sent a torrent of water down Main Street, killing two people, displacing 200 residents, wrecking small businesses and wreaking havoc with infrastructure. In the following days, hundreds of volunteers — including Weinstein — pitched in to clean up the mess.
The street reopened to pedestrian traffic about a month later. But it might take months, even years, to get Ellicott City’s historic district — with its quirky mix of boutiques, antique shops, eateries and watering holes — back to the way it was.
On the day of the ribbon-cutting, timed to coincide with the beginning of the holiday shopping season, one could still see demolished sidewalks and building fronts. Much of the area farther down the steep hill, closer to the Patapsco River, was still closed.
“I have a proclamation here from the County Council,” Weinstein told the crowd. “I’m not gonna read it. It basically just says, ‘Buy stuff.’ It’s a directive.”
Weinstein later recalled seeing a line for one store’s cash register snaking up its stairs and onto the second floor.
An Ellicott City resident and native of Long Island, N.Y., Weinstein has his own management consulting firm of which his wife, Margaret, is chief executive officer. The couple had just arrived in Spain for their first vacation in two years when they got word of the flood.
“There were something like 38 missed calls, three of them were from Allan,” he said, referring to Kittleman. He returned the county executive’s calls and got the whole story. So much for the vacation.
Coordinating with local, state and federal emergency management agencies, Weinstein and other officials contended with gas leaks and structures that could collapse at any time. In addition to helping displaced residents and small business owners pick up the pieces, “we had to figure out how to let people whose homes were fine get in and out” of the historic district, Weinstein said.
Weinstein noted that the storm system that dumped 6½ inches of rain was at its most intense directly above Ellicott City, which sprang up in the 18th century as a mill town. “You have to remember this town was designed to catch water and speed it up,” he said.
Some observers have argued against rebuilding in an area with a long history of floods. Weinstein rejects those arguments, noting that only a handful of those events were of the flash-flood variety.
“For all its warts and risks, it’s part of the identity of the place,” he said. “The people who live and work there all know it.”
Weinstein, who belongs to Temple Isaiah in the Howard County community of Fulton, said he views his commitment to Judaism and public office as meshing seamlessly.
“Judaism charges us to repair the world and do good deeds,” he said. “For me, it reaffirms public service.”
Doug Miller is a Columbia-based freelance writer.
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