Outside her Parkside home on Tuesday afternoon, Myra Mickey watched as a Baltimore public works employee labored several feet below her street to repair a broken water main.
"They've been working around the clock," Mickey, 50, said of the city workers, who first arrived on her street late the night before, when her water also was switched off. "If they weren't here, I'd probably be getting a little heated under my collar."
The workers' presence was reassuring, but also came months after Mickey first began calling the city about suspicious cracks in the street, about water bubbling up, about the inadequacy of a brief repair job that seemed to do nothing "besides make a mess," she said.
Across the city water system, which spans Baltimore City and Baltimore County, public works crews are struggling to keep up with what has been a record number of water main breaks in the past month — what Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called an "alarming rate" of problems caused in part by the extreme cold.
A tiny crack can become a rupture as seeping water freezes and expands. Water from melting snow can cause damage when it then refreezes. Winds can drive cold air into exposed pipes. Changes in temperature can even shift pipes underground, officials said.
In a system with 4,000 miles of water mains that are an average of 75 years old, breaks come unexpectedly and often, all over the city and county, at any time of the year. But the problem reached unprecedented proportions during the recent cold snaps, officials said.
In January alone, as wind chills dropped below zero degrees, the city's Department of Public Works logged 353 water main breaks, the equivalent of what it usually sees in a four-month period, officials said. In all of 2013, the system experienced 1,136 breaks.
Just less than a third of the city system's breaks — 116 — occurred in Baltimore County, said Jeff Raymond, a Public Works spokesman.
The problem is not as bad in the counties with newer systems.
While Howard County, for example, has undergone an uptick in water main breaks due to the cold, the numbers are much lower than in the city's system, said county public works director Jim Irvin. The county has experienced about 30 to 40 main breaks, roughly 10 more than this time last year, he said.
"We've had probably one or two a day," Irvin said. "The worst we had was four at once."
City public works employees, meanwhile, are working 12-hour shifts, and additional contractors are being hired, Rawlings-Blake said — but the demand is simply outpacing what work can be done.
"We pride ourselves on being responsive, but there are only 24 hours in a day and we have a limited supply of public works workers," Rawlings-Blake said Friday morning, just feet away from a water main break on North Avenue, beneath the Jones Falls Expressway overpass.
There were a total of 12,979 water-related service requests last month, about 142 percent more than in an average January, officials said. There were 228 water meter repairs, about 250 percent more than the January average.
Rudy Chow, director of the city's Department of Public Works, said he could not estimate what the spike in such reactive repairs will cost the city.
The rush of work to fix damaged water mains coincides with a more ambitious city plan to replace all 4,000 miles of the system's water mains in the next 100 years, he said. In the first phase of that plan, the city intends to spend $300 million to replace 150 miles of water mains in the next five years alone, he said.
Kurt Kocher, a public works spokesman, said the volume of problems in January could require more funding to be allocated for repair work this year. The Bureau of Water and Wastewater's operating budget for 2014 is $372 million.
Rawlings-Blake said city work crews are responding to calls from residents as quickly as possible, but also must prioritize breaks under major thoroughfares — such as North Avenue — and those that threaten water supplies to hospitals, schools and other public facilities.
"It takes time to triage the breaks," the mayor said.
Some residents know that all too well, they said.