Sarah's House shelter tries to recoup budget washed away when pipes burst

March 08, 1994|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Sun Staff Writer

After six weeks of busted pipes and flooding, life is returning to normal for guests and staff of Sarah's House.

But one problem remains: The deluge also washed away a chunk of the homeless shelter's budget.

Twice within one week in January, frigid temperatures burst pipes and flooded three buildings at the shelter, located in six renovated Army barracks at Fort Meade and run as a joint project of Anne Arundel County, the U.S. Army and Associated Catholic Charities.

Sarah's House provides shelter for homeless people and families in crisis.

Repairs are expected to cost more than $25,000. Catered meals during the three weeks the shelter's kitchen operation was hampered added about $7,000 to the bill.

"Not quite half of my normal food budget for an entire year went for three weeks," said Peter O'Grady, director of Sarah's House.

The shelter's annual food budget is about $13,000.

The problems began Jan. 16, a Sunday, when temperatures dropped to 3 degrees. Parts of sprinkler systems froze in the rear stairwells of three of the shelter's buildings. Sprinkler heads blew off, flooding the stairwells.

"In all three buildings, the pipes broke within five minutes of each other," said Mr. O'Grady. "They just went 'Pop, pop, pop.' "

The water was quickly shut off. But because the sprinklers were not working, the buildings had to be evacuated for safety reasons. Fifteen families left their apartments for several days.

The following Thursday, temperatures dipped to 4 degrees, and Round Two began.

Electricity failed in two buildings housing families. Heat pumps shut down. As the buildings grew colder, the water was turned off. But the pipes could not be drained fast enough. In four apartments, pipes burst inside walls.

Stephanie, who asked that her last name not be used, and her young son spent several days in another apartment while workers repaired her walls. Her son adapted well, she said, but for her the flood meant "a very big inconvenience," and a lot of running back and forth between the two apartments for frozen food and other items.

The building housing the kitchen, dining hall, offices and donation storage area also suffered damage when a sprinkler pipe burst in the attic. Apparently, the pipe had not been drained correctly during earlier repair work.

The 1 1/2 -inch pipe shot water, under pressure, into the building for about 20 minutes. Ceilings caved in, dropping water and sopping insulation onto the floors below. Floor tiles floated away. Furniture and clothes were ruined.

"I cried," said Sister Gracie Sciamanna, director of the emergency shelter at Sarah's House.

Staff and the people who stay at Sarah's House worked all night to mop up the water. And they returned that Saturday and cleaned up the rest of the mess, moving furniture and sorting through donations to see what could be salvaged.

Several restaurants, including Morrison's Cafeteria, Giolitti's Delicatessen, McDonald's and Pizza Hut, donated food. Other meals were catered by Jim's Hideaway.

Ed Blick, who was staying in the men's shelter because of the frigid weather, helped carry debris, sorted through soaked clothing donations and scrubbed and painted the kitchen.

"We appreciate just being there, having a roof over our head and something to eat," Mr. Blick said. "It felt a little good to give something back. . . . I, for one, if it hadn't been for Sarah's House, probably would have froze out there."

Though the county owns the shelter's buildings, the damage was not covered under county insurance because deductibles were not met, said Mr. O'Grady.

In the two buildings housing families, repairs were done for free by Whiting-Turner, the contractor that renovated the buildings for the shelter.

Mr. O'Grady said yesterday the shelter's staff plans to meet with Anne Arundel County officials today to discuss how to pay the remaining bills.

The Abell Foundation has already come forward with a $5,000 grant, he said, and staff will search for additional sources of grant money.

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