Baltimore public works crews ordered to work 12-hour shifts amid dozens of water main breaks

Baltimore is ordering all public works crews to work 12-hour shifts and calling in contractors to repair three dozen water main breaks that flooded streets across the region amid sub-freezing temperatures.

Flooding disrupted at least three major Baltimore thoroughfares Tuesday — including one where a nearby resident said she reported a water main leak to the city last summer. Other breaks resulted in water outages affecting dozens of homes in Baltimore city and county neighborhoods. Some schools across the state closed for water issues or just for the bitter cold.

“I’m asking for residents’ patience,” said Baltimore Public Works Director Rudy Chow. “Our crews are working around the clock, seven days a week. … We are working through these breaks as quickly as we can.”

Water flooded — then froze — the intersections of Greenmount and North avenues in East Baltimore, 25th and St. Paul streets in Charles Village, and East Lombard and South Washington streets in Upper Fells Point.

An Upper Fells Point woman said she reported to the city that water was leaking from a crack on East Lombard Street in August — four months before temperatures dropped, coating the busy road in ice and slush that snarled Tuesday morning rush hour traffic and required heavy snow-removal equipment to clear.

Lindsay Jones, 33, a medical physicist, said she reported the leak via the 311 mobile app five times in recent months, to no avail. She got her city councilwoman, Shannon Sneed, involved. Still, the water continued to run down Lombard Street and onto Chapel Street, where she parks her car.

“It feels kind of bananas,” Jones said. “Once I got off of Chapel Street, it’s like a normal day. But then on Chapel Street, it’s like we’re snowed in. … I have ice outside of every entrance of my house. Thank goodness I don’t have any mobility challenges; I wouldn’t be able to leave my house. It’s really, really dangerous.”

Chow said the city will repair the 30-inch water main once it receives a specialized replacement part, which was ordered in early December.

“We got the report; it took us several months to actually discover where the leak was located,” he said of Jones’ complaint. “So it’s not like we didn’t do anything until December. We knew about it. We’ve been working on it.”

The Department of Public Works said later that Tuesday’s flooding was most likely from a six-inch main and not the leak on the 30 inch line. The break at Lombard and Washington streets was repaired Tuesday evening, the department said, and water service is restored. Crews will backfill the hole and salt the street.

Sneed said the Department of Public Works told her that earlier problems with pipes in the area were fixed when she inquired months ago, and she was told the current break was a new one.

“Our goal is to always resolve the issues right away,” Sneed said. “What I’ve been told is, the issue had been addressed.”

On Tuesday night public works crews were working to stop a break that doused a residential neighborhood in Catonsville with an unrelenting tower of water, which froze into thick layers of ice as temperatures continued to plummet.

Michael McClellan, 32, who lives on Garden Ridge Road, said the front yards of houses close to the break are blanketed in several inches of ice.

Baltimore City Department of Public Works crews were sent to turn off the water main break in the 100 block of Garden Ridge Road, said spokeswoman Jennifer Combs.

“We will investigate and begin repairs ASAP,” she wrote in an email.

The cold caused several school closures — some before the first bell rang Tuesday.

Four city schools closed for all or part of the day due to lack of water or heat.

Garrett County Public Schools also closed Tuesday, with temperatures below zero to start the morning in Western Maryland.

Those frigid temperatures can cause smaller pipes to freeze and break this time of year, but that’s not usually the way larger water main breaks are triggered. Those are more likely to be a consequence of geology, and geography, officials say.

The ground may seem stable, but it’s always moving, shifting objects buried within it, said Kurt Kocher, a city public works spokesman. When frigid temperatures come and go, the freezing and thawing makes that movement more severe.

“Things are going to move and shift,” he said. “It’s a real shock.”

The effect is strongest in places with softer, more porous ground, making areas across East and Southeast Baltimore more prone to main breaks, Kocher said.

The age of Baltimore’s plumbing — much of it was installed more than a century ago — can also be a factor, he said. Corrosion weakens pipes, and extra movement and stress from cold temperatures can then break them.

Temperatures are not expected to rise above freezing the rest of the week, according to the National Weather Service.

In response to the water main breaks, the public works department has hired contractors to assist its regular crews and assigned all utility maintenance inspectors to respond only to water main reports.

A main break in the 3000 block of Beverly Road in the Beverly Hills neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore was responsible for 35 water outages. In Baltimore County, an eight-inch water main broke at Margarette Avenue and Post Boy Court in Towson, leaving 30 customers and two hydrants without water. A total number of water outages was not available, officials said.

City residents are asked to call 311 and county residents to call 410-396-5352 to report water main breaks.

A chance of snow Wednesday into Thursday could complicate repair efforts. The Baltimore area region is likely on the western edge of where snow will fall in measurable amounts — with greatest likelihood along the Chesapeake Bay and on the Eastern Shore, the National Weather Service reported.

The early forecast left a wide range of possible precipitation for the area, from a trace to no snow across the metro area, to up to 6 inches in some places.

Baltimore Sun reporters Yvonne Wenger, Talia Richman and Scott Dance contributed to this article.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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