By Catherine Rentz and Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun
10:06 PM EDT, May 2, 2014
As Wendy Wu waited at the end of a Charles Village street to be escorted to her home Friday afternoon, a city police officer urged her and others to stay behind the yellow caution tape; small pieces of earth were still tumbling down the hill into a rail bed after a landslide two days earlier.
Wu, 47, needed to go home to grab some things to get her through the next few days: her 10-year-old daughter's lacrosse uniform for a game that night, a Polish costume for a dress-up bazaar at school, books, clothes, hairspray — and a pink and yellow plumeria plant from New Orleans that she didn't want to die.
City officials escorted Wu and other residents into their homes on the first block of E. 26th St. to collect personal items after a morning meeting with staff members from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration. Area residents displaced by the landslide said they had been concerned about problems along the street and frustrated that nothing was done before a 120-year-old retaining wall collapsed Wednesday, dumping streetlights, sidewalks and parked cars onto the CSX tracks below.
The neighbors — part of a tight-knit community that holds block parties and even coordinates house colors of pink, light blue and other pastels — also complained about their uprooted lives.
Wu's block, where trees had just begun to show spring blooms, was busy Friday, with men in hard hats and workers taking down the trees. The area had no gas or water service, and residents learned that sewer lines had also been compromised. Worrisome cracks spread across what was left of the street.
Wu, a grant manager at the John Hopkins University, was skeptical about the city's estimate that it would take 40 days to assess the damage and repair everything. "I fear once this drags on, we're going to be forgotten," she said after the morning meeting.
At the meeting, city workers outlined programs that the displaced residents could use, including vouchers for hotels and groceries. Staffers stayed for two hours after the meeting, talking to the more than 20 residents one by one and taking notes of housing and other needs.
Reginald Scriber, deputy commissioner for community services in the housing department, said the city had already placed five families in hotels and was talking to others about placements. Most area residents, like Wu, had found their own housing with friends, relatives or temporary sublets.
"There is quite a bit of anger," said City Councilman Carl Stokes, who represents the area. "It's an emotional issue as well as a physical one, of having to leave your own home, not sleep in your own bed for maybe as many as 40 days."
Nick Reyes was upset — and unsure of where he will live — even as the CSX tracks were quickly cleared and made operational.
"The trains are running, but I can't go in my own house," said Reyes, 24, who has lived in a rented house on the block for two years. He has a band, Paul Newman and the Ride Home, and is worried about his drums and other music equipment that was in his Jeep Cherokee when it slid down to the rail bed.
Down the street, Larry Saunders and Stephen Belcher returned home after the meeting to gather an assortment of belongings. Saunders, 28, is a professional belly dancer and photographer who works out of his home. He needed to gather costumes for a professional dancing engagement this weekend in Virginia Beach.
He and his husband, Belcher, 29, a computer programmer and harpist, moved around their bedroom, pulling shiny purple-and-gold dancing attire from the dresser, sheet music from the bedside table, photography equipment from the closet. They also packed up clothes and engagement rings.
Saunders left home just 30 minutes before the landslide. His car had been parked on the side of the street that collapsed, but a friend had asked for a ride to a bake store. "I owe my friend a drink!" Saunders said. His phone died en route to the store, and when he returned, he was shocked to see half of his street missing.
Saunders describes the block as "close." Many residents are self-employed and help each other out with painting, photography or watching children. The one who holds them all together is Erica McCullough, whom he describes as the "block mom."
"All the kids are always at my house," McCullough said. "I'm always cooking something."
McCullough, 38, began walking this block of East 26th Street as high school student.
"It was not an open-air drug market like where I grew up," she said. "I loved the architecture, the relative safety. I fell in love with the block. It was the best thing in the entire world."
After several years of wishing she lived there, a local resident told her she should buy. By then, she was a teacher, and decided she could afford the most dilapidated home on the block, which she still becomes emotional talking about. She built her eco-cleaning business, Living Legacy Development, out of the basement and cared for her ailing parents and grandfather in the house.
McCullough was at home with her children, an 8-year-old and a 1-year-old, when the street caved. In a video posted on the Internet, you can hear her screaming as the fence, sidewalk and cars tumble into the gulch.
After the meeting, McCullough returned to gather clothes and take care of her two "back-alley Baltimore mutt mix" dogs, who are still living there until she can find them foster care.
Her neighbor, Nels Schumacher, 32, was headed to the airport Friday afternoon to pick up his fiancee, Jenna Cataldo, who had been in Boston to buy her wedding dress.
Schumacher said he told Cataldo what happened to their street and even sent photos, but she didn't believe him.
Schumacher has been staying with his father near Belvedere Square, but it's not a convenient location for Cataldo, a nurse in the burn unit at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
"Especially now that we're down to one vehicle," said Schumacher, whose Saturn station wagon rolled into the rail bed, landing upside down.
Schumacher, a student in environmental sustainability at the University of Baltimore, said he came away from Friday's meeting dissatisfied.
"Really what we need, what everyone is waiting for, is to meet with the mayor, meet with the engineers, CSX, the people that can give us any information as to the structural soundness of the house, what the time frame of the engineering project will be," he said. "There was no one there like that to answer those questions. So we still have no answers."
He said the city seems to be doing what it can right now, offering vouchers and other emergency assistance, but the long term is what concerns him.
"It was kind of exciting at first," Schumacher said, noting that he had heard from a friend in Egypt who saw him on CNN. "But then the reality of the whole thing sets in."
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun