City streets wet, taps dry after water main break Cherry Hill hit hardest

residents say rations are insufficient

April 27, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

With the faucets dry in her Cherry Hill neighborhood yesterday morning, 37-year-old Sheila Gibson decided to clean herself and her five children with a washcloth and water from her toilet tank.

Her mother, Pearlene Bailey, was more desperate. A few minutes before 9 a.m., she walked past the front desk at Harbor Hospital Center, rode an elevator up a few floors, and "borrowed" a shower, she said. Then she dressed, sneaked out and returned to her home on Joplea Avenue.

The homes of Ms. Bailey and Ms. Gibson were among an estimated 12,000 residences and businesses in southern Baltimore neighborhoods left with little or no running water yesterday after a crippling water main break near the south end of the Hanover Street bridge at 8 p.m. Thursday evening .

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The break came in a relatively large, 30-inch main that feeds 12 smaller mains providing water service to Cherry Hill, Brooklyn and Westport. City officials said the main break disrupted service in a wider area -- from Patapsco Avenue north to Waterview Avenue, and Hanover Street west to Russell Street -- than any break in memory.

"I'm a clean woman, and I need my shower," said Ms. Bailey, one of several residents who had to wait in the rain yesterday afternoon for bottled water provided by the city. "People will do what they have to do to get water."

Frustrated public works crews struggled for nearly 20 hours to close valves around the break so they could reroute water and repair the main, which at age 70 is younger than many city mains.

The break was finally isolated at about 4 p.m. yesterday, and repairs began immediately. Water service was supposed to be restored to all affected homes by sunrise today.

The city spends about $5 million a year to clean and line 3000 miles of water mains, but officials said the section of pipe that broke had not been serviced in recent years. Officials said they have not determined the cause of the break.

"Everyone is working hard to make repairs and determine the cause," said Vanessa Pyatt, a Department of Public Works spokeswoman.

The main break made for a difficult day in the southern part of town.

Six schools -- Arnett J. Brown Jr. Middle School, Cherry Hill Elementary, Arundel Elementary, Patapsco Elementary, Carter Goodwin Woodson Elementary and Westport Elementary -- had to be closed, creating a dry holiday for hundreds of youths.

Water poured onto Hanover Street, which was closed heading northbound for much of the day, and also flowed through the hospital parking lot and into the river. The hospital had to bring in over 2000 gallons of bottled water and stopped doing laundry, but 40 scheduled surgeries went forward as planned.

In Brooklyn, the lunchtime crowd was heavy but water pressure was low at Upton's Tavern at Ninth Street and Patapsco Avenue, and the toilet at McCully Funeral Home flushed "very slowly," said manager Kevin Ecker.

In Westport, conditions varied. Rodney Vass, 19, who works at the Baltimore Urban League, said his water went off as he took a shower last night, and had not returned. But 82-year-old Stella Lamm's tap flowed strongly, providing more than enough water for her to wash her tile floor.

The more than 10,000 residents of Cherry Hill, where the median household income is $15,470, took the worst of it. Many taps produced no water at all, and toilets wouldn't flush. In response, city officials said they placed 40 portable toilets in the neighborhood late yesterday afternoon, and distributed about 5000 one-gallon plastic water bottles purchased from the Polar Water Company in Savage.

In a parking lot in the 600 block of Cherry Hill Road, public works employees, joined by Gerald Cheatam, the mayor's representative to the neighborhood, handed out the bottles one at a time. Police officers kept the peace.

An impromptu market quickly sprang up, with water selling on the street for as much as $5 per gallon. Several residents complained that the ration was insufficient.

"Sir, I have six kids," Marcia Jackson, 28, told Mr. Cheatam after standing in line for 15 minutes and receiving only one gallon. "How am I supposed to give them each a drink? How am I supposed to flush the toilet?"

"Ma'am, we're just trying to make sure everyone has at least some water," he replied, matter-of-factly.

Ms. Jackson walked away, then stopped and stared at the bottle. With formula to make for her three-month-old, she was certain a gallon would not be enough. "I'm going to have some problems at home," she said.

Pub Date: 4/27/96

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