Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the river that parallels Main Street in Ellicott City. It is the Tiber River.
WASHINGTON — Faced with a potential imminent collapse of two flood-damaged buildings on Ellicott City’s Main Street, county officials have blocked residents and property owners from returning to homes and businesses there until the two structures are demolished.
“I know that’s caused a lot of frustration for people and I certainly understand that,” Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman said Wednesday during an afternoon news conference. “However, the public safety is more important, and ensuring that we don’t have anyone harmed when they’re down there is too important.”
Officials had initially planned to allow residents to return to Main Street on Wednesday to retrieve possessions from their homes and businesses — four days after raging floodwaters tore through the historic district, damaging numerous buildings and killing two stranded motorists.
Two buildings have been deemed structurally unsafe and could collapse without warning, said Bob Frances, director of Howard County’s Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits.
“The last thing you want to have is a bunch of homeowners and property owners and business owners walking by a building when it falls on someone,” he said.
The buildings — a three-story building attached to a two-story building in the 8100 block of Main Street — are a mix of commercial and residential space, officials said. The addresses of the damaged buildings are 8101, 8107, 8109 and 8113 Main Street.
Beyond the risk of falling debris and dust and environmental concerns, the collapse of the buildings is dangerous because the structures butt up against the Tiber River.
Debris could create a “secondary damming system,” said John Butler, Howard County Fire Department chief, which “then could bring another flooding condition” along Main Street.
Frances said he is working with the Department of Public Works to draw up a plan for demolition. He said he believes the two buildings can be dismantled without significantly impacting the surrounding structures.
Officials had at first discussed the possibility of shoring up the building but ultimately nixed the idea.
“It’s not worth the risk to our folks from our special operations team to go down to the river and shore this up,” Frances said. Fortifying the buildings would be only a temporary solution and “could be washed out in a heartbeat,” he said.
The timeline for the demolition is still unclear.
“We’re not talking weeks,” Frances said. “I don’t know how many days we’re talking about.”
But beyond that, officials still can’t say when exactly residents and business owners would be allowed back on Main Street.
“We don’t know, and we think it’s only fair to be that straight with you,” Kittleman said. “If we knew, we would tell you.”
Overall, Frances said his department has evaluated 135 structures that were affected by the flood, several of which have been deemed unsafe because of structural damage.
The county is planning to release a list of buildings that sustained structural damage, Frances said, and there may be additional buildings that need to be demolished, he said.