Utility troubles linger in Overlea

Residents still dealing with aftermath of gas- and water-main breaks

October 30, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin and Julie Bykowicz | Jennifer McMenamin and Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Lorraine and John Stone's problems were far from over when gas service was restored to their Overlea home.

They went two more days without hot showers while shopping for a water heater to replace the one ruined when gas and water mains broke last weekend, sending thousands of gallons of water spilling into the neighborhood's gas lines.

They kept an eye on their thermostat for six days, until a $100 part for their furnace -- shipped Wednesday from Seattle by overnight delivery -- could be installed yesterday afternoon.

And they're still eating little more than sub-shop sandwiches and McDonald's takeout while their stove and oven sit idle. The kitchen appliance was damaged beyond repair and burnt from flames that inexplicably shot up from the stovetop burners when water and gas pipes a block away broke.

"We're afraid to turn anything on at this point," said Lorraine Stone, 51, who works as a receptionist for a real estate company. "We're afraid it's going to happen again. It's just been a nightmare."

It's been a trying week in Overlea, where about 1,900 people lost gas and water service last weekend, and about 500 residents suffered some sort of water damage to their natural gas-fed appliances.

While water service was restored by the first night, repairing the damage to the gas lines took considerably longer. By the end of the workweek, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. crews drained 50,000 gallons of water from gas pipes, restored gas service and replaced 1,400 to 1,600 feet of pipeline in the neighborhood, said Clay Perry, a spokesman with Constellation Energy, BGE's parent company.

Nonetheless, neighbors expect the aggravation to linger -- and the expenses to add up -- through the coming weeks as officials with BGE and the Baltimore Department of Public Works, which operates water mains in the county, investigate the cause of the broken lines and as repairs are wrapped up and appliances are replaced.

Residents also must begin the potentially lengthy process of filing claims with homeowners insurance companies and waiting to hear whether the damage is covered.

"I'm very on-edge," said Jeanette Certano, whose 91-year-old mother lives in the neighborhood and lost her furnace, water heater, stove, space heater and clothes dryer. "Until we get a few months down the road, I don't know what's going to go wrong, what the plumber did or didn't do and what BGE did or didn't do."

The neighborhood's ordeal began about 11 a.m. Oct. 23 when a 6-inch water main and a 6-inch gas main buried together at Cardwell Avenue and Belair Road burst and furnaces in two homes in the 4200 block of Cardwell Ave. caught fire.

A firetruck responding to the emergencies began sinking on unstable road surface as it turned onto Cardwell Avenue, said Kurt L. Kocher, a spokesman for the city Department of Public Works. And water was soon shooting from the ground like a geyser.

Meanwhile, dozens of residents found water -- rather than gas -- streaming from furnaces, bubbling out of stovetop burners and pouring from clothes dryers to flood basements. The odd sight reminded one man of a Three Stooges movie in which all the appliances are hooked up wrong.

But what might have seemed amusing for a moment began wearing on the neighborhood as chilly days dragged on without heat, hot water or the ability to cook a real meal.

Crockpots that had been used exclusively to melt chocolate for making candy were dusted off and relied on to conjure up daily dinners. Residents lugged pots of water outside to outdoor grills so they could have warm water to wash up. Others depended on the graciousness of friends who, unaffected by the utility disaster, offered use of their showers.

The community's many retirees sat on their porches all week -- like little kids waiting for the ice cream man, Overlea Association President Pete Definbaugh said -- eager to hail one of the many BGE trucks that crisscrossed the neighborhood all week.

Elmwood Elementary School was closed for three days while crews pumped more than 15,000 gallons of water from the gas pipelines around the school.

After many residents complained that insurance companies initially balked at paying claims for damages caused by the utility problems, neighborhood leaders contacted lawyers to discuss the prospect of filing a class action lawsuit, Definbaugh said. He said such action no longer seems necessary as many insurance agents have since told Overlea residents that they will pay the damage claims.

Others who thought their homes had made it through the disaster unscathed woke up at midweek to find themselves with the troubles they had been hearing about from neighbors.

Ron Sanders, 61, a civil engineer who lives on Thorncliff Road, a street away from the ruptured pipelines, was among them. After three problem-free days, Sanders discovered Wednesday morning that he had no hot water and could not light the pilot light on his year-old water heater.

A repairman diagnosed the problem as a water-damaged air flap and told Sanders he'd need a new hot water heater -- at a cost of about $700.

"What worries me most is that it might happen again," Sanders said.

"They're doing their jobs," he said of BGE's work crews, "but I'm just leery and upset."

Adding that the scenario reminded him of a scene in The Godfather when Don Vito Corleone, having lost his oldest son to mob violence, warns his fellow mafiosos that he will hold them responsible should any trouble befall his youngest, Sanders said, "If this strange, freak-of-nature thing that was not supposed to happen does happen again, then I will hold people responsible."

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