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Tenants of city trade center tread water

With just a few hours to get in and out, and sometimes in darkness, an associate of Lee Connor enters the World Trade Center in downtown Baltimore, retrieves some documents and gets them back to the boss.

Connor's employee isn't a spy or a thief - just an associate of the 60 businesses displaced from the trade center in the longest-running and largest single commercial disruption caused by Tropical Storm Isabel more than a month ago.

About 3 million gallons of water entered the basement of the state-owned office tower, enough to fill the dolphin tank at the National Aquarium more than three times. The surge from the adjacent Inner Harbor destroyed most of the electrical, mechanical and telecommunications systems housed beneath the signature structure designed by the famed architect I.M. Pei.

But some tenants, who were forced to scramble to set up operations elsewhere, want to know why they weren't warned, why more wasn't done to protect equipment in a building that has flooded before and who will cover their millions of dollars in losses.

The Maryland Port Administration, the state agency that runs the city's port and owns the 26-year-old trade center, has yet to determine how the water breached floodgates that were installed there after lesser flooding in 1979.

Given that continuing mystery, it is unnerving to tenants, and some outside experts, that state officials plan to put the equipment back in the same place where it was flooded. It would likely be too expensive and consume too much rental space to move the systems higher in the 30-story tower, the port administration said.

The agency informed businesses on its Web site yesterday that they can schedule their return to the building beginning tomorrow.

State officials expect to receive federal aid and insurance to cover most of the estimated $8 million to $10 million in damage to the building. But the tenants are uncertain how they will recoup their losses and moving expenses.

Effort and expense

"It's been terribly disruptive," said Connor, who moved his port services company headquarters near the Baltimore-Washington International Airport a day after the storm.

"We've gone to great lengths and considerable expense to get temporary offices up and running, and I'm really proud of what we've done. We're not moving back to the World Trade Center until we're sure everything will work."

Connor's staff has ferried stuff out of the trade center since Isabel's storm surge sent 16 feet of water into the basement, destroying the backup generators as well as the main systems.

The state agency plans to proceed with a plan developed this year to sell the building, which it no longer considers part of its central mission. Whether the flood susceptibility will lower its value - and the payback to state taxpayers - is uncertain.

Installing a new water line necessary for sprinklers and toilets took longer than expected, and testing of the new equipment continues. But tenants should be able to check their space for major problems and begin returning on a staggered basis this week, said James J. White, executive director of the port administration.

"Our efforts have been focused on what we need to do to get tenants back in the building, and we think we came out with an aggressive schedule to get them back in about 30 days," White said. "We'll do what we can to keep this from happening again, but the building is where it is, on the harbor."

Could have been worse

White takes some comfort in the fact that the "act of God" could have been worse. Had harbor waters climbed another half-foot, the surge would have entered the lobby and elevator shafts and more seriously damaged the building.

The port administration will not allow tenants to break their leases because of the disruption. White said the building will be better because of the repairs, with new electrical and telecommunications infrastructure and about 80 percent of the mechanical equipment replaced. Elevator and security improvements were under way before the flood.

While laying claim to being the tallest pentagonal building in the world, the 1970s structure lacks the flood protection enjoyed by harborside offices of more recent vintage. One of the building's lead designers, Henry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners in New York, did not respond to requests for an interview last week.

By contrast, the year-old Bond Street Wharf in Fells Point, which houses the headquarters of architecture firm RTKL Associates Inc., experienced no flooding from Isabel.

That building, a quarter-mile east from the trade center, was elevated for protection. It does not have a basement, and critical equipment was installed on its roof, said Harold L. Adams, chairman of RTKL.

He also chairs the World Trade Center Institute, a nonprofit group that promotes port-related commerce from the trade center. The institute was also forced to move out of the building it's named for after the flooding to temporary space at RTKL.

"Obviously when you get as much water as they had, and it knocks out everything including your backup generators, and this has happened before, you need to do something," Adams said. With construction around the harbor covering natural drainage with impervious surfaces, chances for flooding are likely to increase, he said.

Others encouraged the trade center managers to take more preventive action.

"There's no legal requirement, but we'd urge them to elevate all that equipment," said John M. Joyce, who runs the state's coordinating office for the national flood insurance program at the Maryland Department of the Environment.

"We expect storms to occur again. This wasn't even a hurricane, it was just a tropical storm. They should not think they are done."

A major flood 24 years ago shut the trade center two years after it opened. It required up to $1 million in repairs, including $56,000 for floodgates to protect entrances to the basement.

Malfunction

Building managers say they are not sure whether the seals on the floodgates failed because of the power outage or because water poured in through wire conduits or other openings.

The floodgates are steel doors that cover the entrance and exit ramps that run from Pratt Street to loading docks in the building's basement. Air compressors, tested recently, are supposed to activate neoprene seals around the gates.

The state has applied for federal aid to cover the 75 percent of repair costs not covered by commercial and self-insurance.

The property is eligible because Maryland was one of four states, with North Carolina, Virginia and Delaware, declared federal disaster areas for billions of dollars in Isabel-related property damage. About 200 local and state entities have applied for the aid in Maryland.

Many of the trade center's tenants, however, fear they will have to eat their losses or might sue to recover them. Some also complain that they've been left in the dark, figuratively, about news on when they can return. They said they have learned what they can from the port's Web site and word of mouth.

Some of the tenants do not want to move back, fearing loss of power, mold or repeat flooding in the building.

The tower was constructed not long before federal requirements for building in a 100-year floodplain were adopted in Baltimore in the early 1980s. There is a 1 percent chance of a significant flood each year in the 100-year flood plain.

On Sept. 19, the day after Isabel struck, Connor, president of John S. Connor Inc., began implementing emergency plans that he had devised two years earlier after the terrorist attacks. The trade center, considered a conspicuous site, was eventually ringed by concrete barriers on the ground and pilings in the harbor for added protection.

After he realized the damage, Connor corralled his staff and his teen-age son and his friends. They formed a human chain down the stairwell to pass the office's basics by flashlight to waiting vans and trucks. He set up a temporary office in a warehouse near the airport that he already leases for the company, which provides customs brokerage and other port services.

By the Monday after the storm, Connor had arranged for an additional 7,500 square feet of space near the warehouse to re-establish a headquarters for 56 employees, with newly purchased tables, folding chairs and salvaged equipment. With wireless technology shipped overnight, he was able to patch into high-speed computer lines from another of his offices nearby. He runs a shuttle service from downtown daily to ferry workers to Anne Arundel County.

Documents lost

Connor lost boxes of documents in the World Trade Center basement, where many other tenants had stored papers on large metal racks. The emergency arrangements have cost him tens of thousands of dollars, he estimates.

"We had the company up and running Monday after the storm. It was quite an accomplishment," he said. "I had a client tell me that if he hadn't read about the problem on our Web site, he wouldn't have known anything was wrong. I'll take that as a high compliment."

Other trade center tenants stayed downtown, paying higher rents for their substitute space than they paid at the trade center, which offers discounts to port-related businesses. Average rent in the trade center is $17 a square foot, several dollars less than market rate for comparable space, according to CoStar Group real estate information.

Samuel Shapiro & Co., also a customs broker, signed a three-month lease in Harborplace tower, a high-end office building across Pratt Street from the trade center that also houses a shopping mall and hotel. But the company lost e-mail for two weeks and couldn't update its Web site to communicate with customers.

Not prepared

"Some people have suggested it could be three or six months before the building has full power, so how are we supposed to operate?" said Margie Shapiro, whose family owns the company.

"It amazes me they weren't prepared. They went through the same thing in 1979. They took no precautions and gave us no warning."

Some former tenants have made a daily pilgrimage to the tower the past month, passing the repair trucks clustered out front, to retrieve material from their offices during certain hours when the elevators are powered.

Barry Dixon, who runs Transmed Foods Inc., an international food manufacturer, said he relies on the port administration's Web site to determine when he can visit. Last week, the elevators ran only from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.

"We're trying to be reasonable," Dixon said. "We all lived through this. But it's a question of responsibility. There was no warning before and there's been practically no help since."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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