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Baltimore council president calls for hearing on Poe Homes water outage, continuing into second week

As workers unloaded replacement toilets from a truck at the Poe Homes on Monday, Cynthia Davis watched in confusion from her front step.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City had just upgraded the public-housing complex’s toilets as part of an agency-wide initiative two weeks before a water main break left residents unable to regularly flush toilets, take showers or drink tap water most of last week.

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“These toilets were brand-new,” Davis said. “Now they won’t flush. I don’t know what to do but pray.”

On Monday, the Housing Authority was pulling out brand-new toilets that struggled to function with low water pressure. Just one resident of the West Baltimore complex had been relocated — and was returning upon repair of the unit’s facilities — while other residents who thought they were being relocated expressed their frustration. And City Council members called for answers as low water pressure, nonflushing toilets and other problems persisted into a second week.

Council President Brandon Scott formally called city agencies to a hearing on their response to the outage, which affected 281 residents, according to the Housing Authority.

Scott introduced the resolution during Monday’s City Council meeting. He said in a statement that it was “unacceptable for residents to be without water for this long.”

The resolution calls on representatives from the Department of Public Works, which runs the water system, to come to testify, along with those of the housing, health and parks departments, the city’s public housing agency and the school system. The hearing would be about “protocols in place for and best practices to provide assistance to Baltimore City residents in the event they lose access to water.”

Speaking from the dais during Monday's council meeting, Scott faulted the public works department’s response to the outage, saying he hadn't officially heard from the director of public works since it began.

"It seems to me the practices and protocols for these types of incidents are either nonexistent, lacking or not being followed. That's why I'm introducing this resolution," the council president said.

Temporary water lines providing service to the community have been buried to protect them from traffic, Department of Public Works spokesman Jeffrey Raymond said in a statement.

“We've also cleared the trash,” Raymond said. “Our focus continues to be supporting [the Housing Authority’s] efforts to assure adequate water pressure to all units.”

Councilman John Bullock, whose district includes the Poe Homes, said in a speech that he had visited the complex twice Monday.

"Work is still being continued," Bullock said. "It's not where we want it to be, but it is progressing."

Officials need to be prepared to respond when the city's aging water infrastructure leads to future incidents, Bullock said.

"Our city, our government must take responsibility for the life, health and safety of all of our residents," he said.

At the Poe Homes, the toilets installed earlier this month were part of an agency-wide transition to more environmentally friendly, high-efficiency toilets, said Janet Abrahams, executive director of the Housing Authority.

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But she said the high-efficiency toilets have smaller tanks and are sensitive to low water pressure and debris in the water lines of the city’s oldest public-housing project, which opened in 1940.

“The older toilets can take that type of abuse ... meaning debris, [low] pressure,” she said. “They're better.”

Abrahams was unable to provide the cost of the toilet replacements Monday or explain why they are being replaced, instead of improving the water pressure so they could be used. The cost, also unavailable Monday, will be part of an emergency contract, spokeswoman Ingrid Antonio said.

“We are not able [to] pull the information at this time,” Antonio said in an email. “All hands are on deck and we are focused to returning water services to our residents.”

A resident of six years, Crystal Lawson will pack tonight since the water pressure has not recovered sufficiently at Baltimore’s Poe Homes.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Baltimore Field Office director went to Poe Homes on Monday to speak to city officials about the problems and their relocation plans, said spokeswoman Niki Edwards.

“HUD has been closely monitoring the situation and is in regular communication with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City,” Edwards said in a statement.

The city had pledged Sunday to relocate 24 households who requested to wait out the water outage elsewhere. But as of Monday, only one tenant had been relocated — and that tenant was being returned, according to the city Housing Authority.

“We relocated one resident yesterday [whose] services have been fully restored and is returning to POE Homes today,” Antonio, the agency spokeswoman, told The Baltimore Sun in an email.

Poe Homes residents who met with Housing Authority representatives on-site Monday to discuss temporary relocation became quickly upset when it became clear they weren’t going anywhere, said Vivian Horne, who has lived in the Poe Homes for six years.

“We thought the meeting was to place us,” the 50-year-old woman said. “The meeting was about them still working on the system. So it’s a whole bunch of talk. It got out of hand in there, because people are very frustrated and they don’t want to hear that.”

The Housing Authority circulated a letter, signed by Abrahams, warning residents they are required by the lease to open their doors for the workers, who it said would present photo ID badges upon arrival.

“HABC, Edgewood [Management Company] and its contractors will be entering all units to inspect and replace toilets, and other equipment, as needed to restore adequate water flow,” the letter said.

Samantha Bennett loaded two cases of bottled water and a box of six gallon-sized containers onto a hand cart and wheeled it to her unit Monday afternoon. Water came out of the bathroom sink faucet when she turned the knob, but the toilet didn’t flush. and an orange bucket remained in her bathtub, where the 39-year-old and family had been forced to take what she calls “birdbaths.”

“It was horrible before they started dropping off water,” she said.

Once the response began, Claudia Vaughn was impressed.

The 60-year-old who has lived in Poe Homes for 15 years called it “over-the-top, rescue help.”

“They outdid themselves to help and make us comfortable,” Vaughn said.

Antonio, the Housing Authority spokeswoman, blamed the water outage on “cascading failures.”

“We understand that this is an unexpected event,” she said. “We do not expect our residents to live like this. They can no longer live like this. We’re doing all we can.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

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