The first sign of trouble came soon after floodwaters from a heavy summer rainstorm had receded.
A neighbor alerted Quentin Bell the night of July 2 that a section of sidewalk in front of his East North Avenue rowhouse had collapsed, exposing the home’s foundation. An orange cone warned passersby, but the woman said she nearly fell in as she chatted on the phone.
Faucets ran dry inside Bell’s home the next day. By then, as the hole slowly widened, it was blocked off by long, white Baltimore Department of Transportation signs. Bell called 311; an operator told him there was no record of any work being done on his block, along the north side of Greenmount Cemetery, and that an inspector would be sent out days later.
When Bell, a 33-year-old longshoreman at the Port of Baltimore, left his home the evening of July 3, he never expected it would be for the last time. On July 4, the hole had widened so much that firefighters were called and engineers brought in. Officials condemned several homes but assured Bell they were working to stabilize his enough so he could get back in.
It eventually became clear that a 115-year-old, 15-foot-wide stone tunnel, overwhelmed by stormwater, had failed, and that the destruction meant Bell’s home and several others had to be demolished. There was concern that, with months of repair work likely ahead, the risk of a collapse into the sinkhole was too great.
The incident underscores the risks posed as obsolete infrastructure endures weather that was once exceptional but is now commonplace. It is the latest in a series of sinkholes and other infrastructure failures in Baltimore in recent years, many of them the result of extreme weather.
It won’t be the last, warned Alice Volpitta, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper for Blue Water Baltimore, a group that advocates for cleaner waterways and repairs to the city’s decrepit systems of water and sewer pipes.
“When those systems fail, people’s lives are impacted,” Volpitta said. “I feel like it’s probably only a matter of time before some of these really big infrastructure failures are going to claim somebody’s life.”
There were no injuries, this time, and for that, Bell is thankful, though he has no idea if or when he’ll recover any money for his losses.
“I’m blessed that it didn’t cave in with me and my friend inside,” the East Baltimore native said. “I’m just blessed that it didn’t cave in while somebody was standing there, because they would be dead.”
For now, the 700 block of North Avenue, a significant artery for crosstown traffic and transit, remains closed in both directions and isn’t expected to reopen soon. Department of Public Works officials said work to stabilize the site could take a month; after that, repairs to the collapsed storm drain could take up to a few more months.
While making maintenance hole repairs nearby in April, city crews walked the storm drain and saw nothing to indicate the failure to come, said Timothy Wolfe, chief of the department’s Office of Engineering and Construction.
Wolfe said the department routinely inspects large pipes and prioritizes them for repair and replacement based on condition and age. Other parts of the stormwater system are even older than the one that collapsed last month, dating as far back as the late 1800s.
But Wolfe said many heavy storms had likely worn on the North Avenue storm drain, which carries water from across 700 acres of Baltimore beneath the city to the harbor. Heavy rain like what preceded the collapse — a National Weather Service flash flood warning said as much as 2 inches of rain fell by 8:30 p.m. July 2, and that an additional inch or two was still in the forecast — can move at speeds and volume capable of causing significant erosion.
The tunnel likely will be rebuilt using reinforced concrete, Wolfe said, though exact repair plans were being worked out.
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In the meantime, those affected by the tunnel collapse are beginning to figure out what’s next.
Bell’s insurance company told him his policy didn’t cover sinkholes, so his next step is to file a claim with the city law department to see whether it will approve a payout, and if so, for how much. That depends on whether the city is found responsible for the incident, something that puzzles Bell.
“What do they have to investigate?” he asked. “The infrastructure is bad.”
Bell and neighbors have started speaking with lawyers to handle those claims and, hopefully, recover some money. While Bell’s home was assessed at $38,000, real estate websites estimate it was worth $110,000 or more. That’s not to mention his property that was turned to rubble: a new blue couch, exercise bikes, new TVs and jewelry, plus sentimental items, like a family photo album.
For Sergio Toledo, who owned the house two over from Bell’s, the loss came as he prepared to rent out the five-bedroom rowhouse. The Rockville resident said he bought the property late last year after seeing improvements to homes in other parts of the neighborhood, giving him hope it would be a good investment. Instead, it was demolished a couple of days after Bell’s.
Adding salt to the wound was a letter from the city Department of Housing and Community Development warning that the costs of emergency work could be placed as a lien on the property. A department spokeswoman said the letter is sent out customarily anytime a property is condemned, and that the North Avenue property owners had been advised they can seek claims from the city.
But it hurt Toledo no less to read a letter saying that a bill for his property’s demolition would be in the mail.