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Ellicott City residents briefly allowed back into homes

Bob Frances, Howard County Director of Inspections, Licenses & Permits explains why two buildings in Ellicott City are in danger of collapse as efforts to recover from the devastating flood in the historic district that killed two people continue. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

It had been days since Richard Jones had been to his apartment in Ellicott City — days since floodwaters roared down Main Street on Saturday night, killing two people, gutting buildings and sweeping away cars.

On Wednesday, Jones was granted 15 minutes to return.

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Escorted by a firefighter, he took in the devastation: The insurance office below his apartment was destroyed. The sidewalk out front was gone. The foundation of the building was damaged.

He grabbed some clothes, a PlayStation 4 video game console and a laptop for work.

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"It's pretty bad," he said. "I at least have some clothes for work."

After shutting down historic Ellicott City for several days, authorities began to allow residents back into their homes Wednesday for brief visits to survey the damage and recover some belongings. They halted the process in the middle of the day, but resumed in the late afternoon.

Also Wednesday, Howard County released 911 recordings from frantic callers trapped in buildings as the floodwaters surged Saturday night. Area restaurateurs were posting openings for workers left jobless by the disaster. Thirty-nine cars remained to be pulled out of the Patapsco River; more than 240 have been removed.

And the iconic 15-foot clock near the B&O Railroad Museum at the foot of Main Street that was washed away by the deluge was reassembled and restored to its base. Its hands were set to 9:20, the moment disaster struck.

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Jones joined about 40 residents at St. Paul's Episcopal Church early Wednesday in the hope of returning to their homes. Smiling volunteers from the American Red Cross of the Greater Chesapeake Region handed out bottles of cold water.

About 10 residents were escorted through the police tape before access was shut down.

"Operations for today have been suspended," said Frank Rommel, the county's deputy chief of fire and rescue services.

Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman blamed the instability of two buildings on Main Street. He said they faced "impending collapse."

Bob Frances, the county director of inspections, licenses and permits, said the Department of Public Works would develop a demolition plan and bring the buildings down in the coming days.

He said neighboring structures should not be affected. No items are to be retrieved from the businesses or residences in the buildings before they are brought down.

"This building could come down without too much more warning," Frances said. "I certainly hope this underscores the importance of the dynamic and unsafe nature of what we're dealing with here."

About 90 of the 135 buildings assessed after the flood suffered significant damage, Frances said. The two buildings facing collapse were among eight deemed "structurally unsafe."

The wall that separated the two buildings is missing, creating a gaping hole clear through to the river that flows behind them. An unexpected collapse could block the river and create another flood, Kittleman said.

Kittleman and county Fire Chief John Butler acknowledged the growing public frustration, but urged patience.

"We feel your pain," Butler said. "I hear it, I see it, I feel it. But there's no way I'm going to put the community in danger, and certainly not the responders on Main Street."

But just before 6 p.m., officials reopened three sections of the ravaged community to residents for about an hour.

Jones entered with a group of a half-dozen. Back in his apartment, the first thing he noticed was the groceries he had bought Friday.

"It's ridiculously hot and it smells," he said.

Jason Krebs was waiting to return to his home.

"I can see my belongings from the yellow tape," he said.

Krebs grabbed a few items with sentimental value, such as his fiancee's engagement ring, when the storm hit. He hoped Wednesday to retrieve some clothes and see the damage.

"Every hour that goes by my stuff is getting ruined," he said.

Alex Olson was looking forward to wearing her own clothes again, after borrowing items from a friend. She lives with her fiance in the same block as the two buildings slated for demolition.

The couple has not picked a date, she said. Now they might not for awhile.

"We're going to figure some things out first," she said, and laughed.

Olson said she wants to find a place to stay within two weeks, so she is not a burden on friends. Like others, she does not know what to do about her next lease — how long to sign for, or whether to get someplace already furnished. Her Ellicott City apartment has plenty of furniture, she said.

"None of those questions have been answered," she said. "I definitely want to come back here. It's home."

The 911 recordings released by the county Wednesday shed new light on the disaster.

"The water is above the doors coming in the building. We need someone to come in," a woman said from the Bean Hollow Coffee and Roastery cafe. "There are cars flying down the street. ... The floor's buckling."

Police received 1,052 calls between 7 p.m. and 1 a.m., four times the normal volume.

Chip Cox, a 911 dispatcher, called the scene chaotic.

"You don't have time to think," he said. "You don't process it until the calls stop."

Bartender Ashley Jennings was working at the Phoenix Emporium on Main Street on Saturday night when the floodwaters came rushing in. Come Sunday morning, she was unemployed.

But that day, she was contacted by Alex Belush. Belush created the closed Facebook group Keep Ellicott City Working to enable restaurant owners and others to post job openings in the region.

Within days, Jennings had landed a position at Quigley's Half-Irish Pub near Camden Yards, within walking distance of her home. She was to start work Wednesday night.

"The Facebook group is a godsend," she said. "A really positive note after a pretty tough week."

Baltimore Sun reporters Brittany Britto, Kevin Rector, Carrie Wells and Sean Welsh and Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Fatimah Waseem contributed to this article.

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