Nearly two weeks after a flash flood ravaged historic Ellicott City, emergency response workers continued Thursday clocking long hours, clearing debris and stabilizing buildings downtown.
County Executive Allan Kittleman toured Main Street, telling staff he's impressed with the pace of progress — while cautioning there's a great deal still to be done.
"We're getting people expecting that things are going to be back to normal soon — they are not," Kittleman said. "It is going to be a long time before people are driving on Main Street and shopping on Main Street. ...
"Pretty soon it's going to become one big construction project," he said.
Officials said damage from the fatal flash flood is so severe the historic mill town will remain closed to the public for the foreseeable future. Many building foundations are destroyed. Retaining walls meant to hold in flood waters remain crumbled. Destroyed furniture remained piled near store fronts
Still, county officials said they're working to get the town back to normal as quickly as possible. They've erected a tent city near the worst damage, where officials direct repairs.
More than 1,300 tons of debris has been transported from Main Street, according to Tom Meunier, director of public works for the emergency response.
Some signs of progress are showing. Outside the Howard County Welcome Center near Hamilton Street, a hole that once stretched east for almost a block is now filled with gravel. The cobblestone walkway outside the Rumor Mill, once covered by inches of mud, was visible. Public works employees have filled in washed away sidewalks and built temporary curbs with asphalt and sandbags, in case of more rain — a possibility in the next few days.
"It's been a pretty epic effort and a lot of coordination with a whole lot of people," Meunier said. However, in the business district, he said, "we're not anywhere close to having clients."
On Thursday work crews were still hauling mangled cars from the Patapsco River, which is polluted with sewage after the flood.
"The debris goes all the way to Anne Arundel County," said Ryan Miller, the county's emergency management director. "There are still bacteria levels too high to go in the river."
During the tour Kittleman stopped to talk with Barrington Sweeney, a truck driver whose family has lived on Main Street for a century. Sweeney said he was almost wiped away by the rushing waters during the flooding.
Sweeney said flash flooding that occurred in 2011 and last month were the worst in his lifetime. "I've never seen anything like that," he said.
The Pennsylvania Incident Management Team that stepped in after the storm, helping coordinate government agencies in restoration efforts, will go home Sunday — leaving the Howard County Office of Emergency Management in charge of the restoration process.
Miller said the out-of-town help allowed county officials to begin plotting out long-term plans for recovery.
"It's a system we've never done before to this scope and scale," Miller said.
Miller will continue to work on overarching policies related to the rebuilding — balancing federal reimbursement programs, jurisdictional disputes and environmental concerns — while Thomas McNeal, deputy director of emergency management, handles tactical plans.
County officials said they are continuing to provide access upon request for owners and residents on Main Street, but not the general public.
Residents and business owners with credentials can meet at the George Howard building on Saturday and Sunday for access to Main Street from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Aid stations will be available to help with the warm temperatures forecasted for the weekend.
McNeal said county workers have been pushing themselves to the limit and understand how tough it is for residents to see their homes badly damaged. .
"We've been running on adrenaline and hope," he said. "The people who live in town have been under an enormous amount of stress."