Water main break closes businesses and schools

Areas from Hunt Valley to N. Baltimore affected

November 20, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

A water main break behind a Lutherville shopping center made faucets run dry from Hunt Valley to North Baltimore yesterday morning, cutting off service to hundreds of thousands of residents, forcing 14 public schools to close and shuttering scores of businesses and offices.

The break, evidently caused about 11 a.m. by a construction crew working in the parking lot of the Ridgely Shopping Center at York and Ridgely roads, resulted in the Baltimore water system's largest loss of service in years. The break, combined with problems in the water system, triggered the widespread shutdown, said spokesman Kurt Kocher of the Baltimore Department of Public Works, which operates the city and county system.

"It's just a chain reaction," he said.

Crews were able to get the system running again about 7 p.m. yesterday, said Kocher.

The water service shutdown forced restaurants and grocery stores throughout the area to close early yesterday because workers were unable to wash pots or hands without water.

"I feel bad because we have to turn everybody away, but there's just no way we can open," said Daniella Troia, one of the owners of Cafe Troia in Towson.

She smiled apologetically at a customer who begged her to seat him for lunch, promising that he did not care whether the staff washed their hands or not. Troia said the restaurant would probably lose thousands of dollars for closing early that day.

The break affected Hunt Valley, Cockeysville, Timonium, Lutherville, Towson, Loch Raven, Parkville, Carney and some neighborhoods in North Baltimore.

Baltimore County courts closed at noon, and the county government sent home all workers other than public safety employees and essential personnel about 1 p.m.

County school officials scrambled to close 14 schools, its Towson headquarters and Timonium offices yesterday afternoon because of the water problems. A school board meeting scheduled for last night will be held tonight instead.

"I've never heard of a water problem causing this many closings," said Douglas J. Neilson, a spokesman for the county schools.

Ordinarily, a single break wouldn't cause such a large problem, but it came at the wrong time, Kocher said. The city was performing routine maintenance on a 96-inch- diameter main that normally serves as backup to many smaller mains in the county, including the one that broke.

Also, a pumping station at Cromwell Bridge Road had been having problems for the past few days. The station pumps water into several above-ground tanks, which drain by gravity into homes and businesses. The pump was fixed today, but the reserves in the tanks were too low to maintain pressure in the water pipes.

Ordinarily, water officials would have been able to use the 96-inch main or the above-ground tanks to maintain pressure, but the break in the 8-inch main while those backups were out of commission caused a chain reaction.

"The only real problem was the contractor breaking a water line," Kocher said. "He did it at just the wrong time. ... It was a series of events that unfortunately came into being at once today." The city postponed maintenance work on the 96-inch backup line and expected to have that in service by the end of the day yesterday, Kocher said.

Behind the Ridgely Shopping Center, a series of orange cones with "Arc Environmental" written on them was set up around an 8-inch-diameter hole in the concrete, through which water could be seen flowing underground. The ground around the hole was covered with orange-colored mud, and puddles of water had formed there and on the street to the west.

A man who answered the phone at Arc Environmental, a construction company at East Fort Avenue in Baltimore, confirmed that the company did have a work crew at that site, but he declined to answer questions about what role the crew might have had in the water main break. The man would not identify himself.

Goucher College and Towson University canceled classes yesterday, as did many private and parochial schools. Most local day care centers shut their doors by noon.

Towson's major hospitals reported some disruptions because of the water failure. St. Joseph Medical Center had enough water in reserve that it did not cancel any surgeries, but Daphne Swancutt, a hospital spokeswoman, said ambulances were diverted to other hospitals for about an hour after water service was lost.

At Greater Baltimore Medical Center, elective surgeries were suspended, said spokesman Mike Hartnett . He said staff had been asked to conserve water. The hospital keeps an emergency supply of drinking water on hand and two tanker trucks of water were being sent to GBMC for last night, he said.

Sheppard Pratt Hospital keeps several days' supply of water on site, said Bonnie Katz, a hospital spokeswoman. Bottled water was available for patients and gallons of water were being used for food preparation yesterday, she said.

No roads were closed because of the water main break, said Bill Toohey, a county police spokesman.

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