WHEN A natural disaster occurs -- a tornado or hurricane or flood -- people get upset but attribute it to meteorological phenomena or divine intervention. It is something they can't do anything about. But it is more difficult to accept a water-main break that so damages rowhouses that at least 12 are demolished. The tragedy Saturday has many Baltimore residents fearing their aging neighborhoods could be next.
Public Works Director George G. Balog is trying to be reassuring, pointing out that in his 28 years in the city he hasn't seen a similar occurrence. About 10 years ago, a city-system pipe burst in Catonsville, flooding a trailer home park; about 15 years ago a main broke downtown and created traffic havoc at Pratt and Light streets. But those events pale in comparison to seeing a river of water six-feet deep devouring cars and weakening rowhouses along Homewood Avenue near North Avenue.
Mr. Balog cannot guarantee that it won't happen again. For one thing, he believes the weather had more to do with the incident than the age of the 60-year-old pipe. When the weather turns cold or warm for sustained periods, typically when seasons change, the ground shifts and pipes break. Mr. Balog says more than one water pipe a day breaks in Baltimore, on average, but most are repaired with little or no disruption to city life.
A more common cause of pipe ruptures is the pressure of the water that moves through them. Eighty percent of the city's pipes are of the old cast-iron variety. Organic growth inside these pipes narrows the water passage and creates greater pressure. There is an on-going program to clean out the organic material and line the old pipes with concrete. But only five to 10 miles of pipe are renovated each year; over half the 1,800 miles of water pipe in the city still need this work.
A far more aggressive water-main improvement program is needed. Mr. Balog says he has quadrupled efforts to improve pipe during his nine years as public works director, but it remains woefully inadequate. In light of the water main break Saturday, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke had better give this infrastructure project a much higher fiscal priority.
Seventy-five houses were damaged by rushing waters Saturday. Homeowner insurance will cover some of the families affected, but others are looking to the city for short-term assistance and an answer to their future housing needs. What happened to them can't be chalked up to "nature." The city has responsibilities that must be met.
Pub Date: 5/13/97