By Laila Kearney

(Reuters) - A quaint central Maryland town known for its antique shops and haunted mansions was beginning to clean up debris on Monday after weekend flooding killed at least two people and badly damaged dozens of buildings, government officials said.

Torrential rain caused a tributary of the Patapsco River to overflow and send floodwaters through Ellicott City, an unincorporated community in Howard County, about 35 miles (56 km) northeast of Washington, D.C.

"We've been through blizzards, we've been through hurricanes, we've been through terrible train accidents, but we have never seen devastation like this," U.S. Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, told reporters at a news conference.

Mikulski praised the work of emergency officials and citizens who helped save lives of those threatened by the surging waters.

Search and rescue workers came to the aid of about 120 people stranded in the flooding, while residents formed a human chain to free a woman trapped inside her car when raging waters enveloped the vehicle on a downtown street.

"For the people who did things like form the human chain -- I tell you, it really shows that the people here have such grit," she said.

A video posted online by local media of the so-called human chain shows an unidentified woman in a compact convertible car as muddy, waist-deep waters gush down a roadway that looks like a raging river. At first one man attempts to reach the woman but is swept off his feet. Soon after, the video shows a group of men link arms and stretch out toward the vehicle, eventually pulling the woman from her car to safety.

Overnight, more than 180 vehicles were towed from streets, parking lots and the riverbed to a local high school, county officials said. An additional 20 cars were stuck in an area of the river.

"With the cars removed, Monday's focus is on debris removal," county officials said in a statement.

Meanwhile, scattered thunderstorms were expected throughout the day, according to the National Weather Service.

Elliott City received almost 6 inches (15 cm) of rain in two hours late on Saturday, causing the tributary, Tiber Creek, to break its banks.

Vehicles were swept down city streets and dozens of buildings were badly damaged in addition to those destroyed, county officials said.

Every business near the river on the town's historic Main Street had suffered major damage, including building fronts torn off and doors stripped away, county officials said.

The bodies of two people, a man and a woman, were found in the aftermath, one in the river, officials said.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency, as did Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman. The declarations allow aid to be released more quickly for Ellicott City, which has a population of about 65,000.

Kittleman said the money would help pay for infrastructure improvements to make the town more resilient to flooding.

"We are going to make sure Ellicott City rises up to be an even stronger more vibrant place than it is right now," he said.

Officials were still assessing the number of people displaced by the flooding and the cost of damage to the community, a county spokeswoman said.

(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Frances Kerry and Diane Craft)