For the second time in six days, Baltimore's aging water system ruptured, affecting service to dozens of businesses and homes downtown and in Essex, including two hospitals, while snarling traffic and providing yet another unpleasant reminder of the region's crumbling infrastructure.
A 30-inch pipe downtown at East Madison Street near Guilford Avenue broke shortly before 8 a.m. and sent water gushing down Guilford as well as the Fallsway. Businesses and institutions in a 12- to 14-block area either lost water altogether or saw pressure drop, including Mercy Medical Center, Our Daily Bread and Center Stage.
As crews labored to restore water pressure to most buildings in that area, a 16-inch pipe broke late in the morning on Philadelphia Road near Rossville Boulevard, affecting water service to Essex businesses and homes, including MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center and the Community College of Baltimore County's Essex campus. The city is responsible for maintenance of the county's water lines as well.
Service was restored within hours to most affected businesses and homes. But by day's end, 19 homes and one business in the 800 block of N. Calvert St. still lacked water, as did 15 businesses and 60 homes in Essex, said Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the city's Department of Public Works.
They were the latest in a string of water main breaks that have hit the city and Baltimore County. Work is still under way to repair a rupture that occurred Wednesday in a 60-inch pipe on North Charles Street at 20th Street. They add impetus to the city's promise to accelerate repairs to the aging water system, targeting nearly 20 miles' worth of pipes for replacement in the coming year.
"We're going to get close to it, as close as we can," said Kocher. "All that's being expedited very quickly."
Disruption from the latest breaks was limited for some and mitigated by the Veterans Day closure of government offices downtown.
Mercy experienced low pressure in only a portion of its downtown medical complex and for just an hour, so patient care and operations were unaffected, according to spokesman Dan Collins.
Franklin Square distributed bottled water and hand sanitizer as a precaution to its patients while pressure was low there, according to Franklin Square spokeswoman Trina Adams. The college canceled daytime classes, but later announced its Monday evening classes would go ahead as scheduled.
But some downtown commuters found their morning trips complicated by road closures around the break. Parts of Madison Street had buckled near the intersection, and water was shooting upwards from gravel dislodged in the roadway. Muddy water pooled at the intersection at the Fallsway and covered sidewalks, blocking access to several buildings, including Our Daily Bread Employment Center, which had water at its front steps. Staff had to close its public restrooms, which serve as many as 1,000 people a day.
"I felt like I needed a boat to get to work," said Trish Hampton, front desk coordinator at the charity, which had water at its front steps well before 9 a.m. "I saw dark water coming out of the ground."
Our Daily Bread still planned to serve lunch to as many as 800 indigent people Monday.
"We never shut down and we will feed people here today," said director Sabree K. Akinyele.
Staff had filled numerous containers in the kitchen with water before the pressure dropped and had ordered portable toilets to be set up on its back lot.
The center needs about 50 volunteers a day to assist with lunch service. Many of them had difficulty getting to the center Monday as traffic was rerouted on surrounding streets.
"We heard as we were on our way here and managed to get redirected," said Susan Terranova, who accompanied about a dozen Mount St. Joseph High School freshmen. The students would be busing tables, serving and cleaning up from lunch, she said, adding she was certain the young volunteers could cope with the day's problems.
Kocher said he had no estimate on how long repairs would take on either break. He said it was too soon to know what caused either, but said city officials are "pretty sure" the Madison Street main was installed more than a century ago. The Essex line was undoubtedly newer, Kocher said, but it was cast iron, indicating it also was decades old.
Most of the city's nearly 1,600 miles of water lines are more than 70 years old, and many have been in the ground more than a century. A 20-inch pipe that failed beneath Light Street downtown in July and took more than a month to repair was laid in 1889. Public works officials have acknowledged decades of neglect are responsible for many of the 1,000 or more breaks — many of them minor — that occur annually throughout all 4,500 miles of pipes delivering water to 1.8 million residents throughout the city and parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties.
In the summer, after the disruptive Light Street break downtown, city officials announced a $300 million plan to increase the pace of pipe replacement eightfold over the next five years to 40 miles annually. Water rates went up 9 percent this year and are projected to continue increasing to cover the costs, they said.
Residents and businesses in the area will experience low water pressure until repairs are completed, Kocher said. Once pressure is restored, water may still appear cloudy at first but should clear after running the tap for a few minutes, he added. Aerators on faucets ought to be removed so they won't become clogged with sediment. Anyone in the city whose water still is not clear is urged to call the city's nonemergency hotline, 311, while Essex area residents should call 410-396-5352.