Baltimore public works employees stemmed the flow of raw sewage into the Jones Falls yesterday afternoon -- but not before 24 million gallons of waste spilled into the waterway and eventually flowed into the Inner Harbor.
For two days, more than 20 city mechanics and electricians worked around the clock to fix three pumps at the Hampden facility, after a power failure Thursday during Hurricane Floyd shut down the station, officials said.
When the power died, officials said, the station's pumps stopped working, and waste water began to fill the station. About 3: 20 p.m. yesterday, city workers were able to restore one pump and stop the flow of sewage into the river.
The failure "was an act of God, so to speak," said Larry Slattery, an official with the city's Department of Public Works who oversees the plant. "We don't like to see that happen."
As city workers continued fixing the two remaining pumps, Marylanders were still recovering from a storm that officials estimated caused $7.9 million in damage to public infrastructure -- roads, bridges and public buildings -- in the state. Hardest hit were Harford, Cecil, Charles, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties, all of which suffered damages of $1 million or more.
And thousands of Baltimoreans were still suffering through the city cable system's worst outage ever. About 40 percent of TCI subscribers were still without service late yesterday.
Baltimore-area residents were also dealing with major power outages and dwindling supplies of dry ice. Officials with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. said last night that 129,700 customers -- more than 10 percent of the utility's customer base -- were still without electricity. BGE said a majority of them would get power restored by the end of the day today, but some may still be without power until Tuesday.
Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties were hardest hit. Officials reported that 27,472 customers were without power in Anne Arundel, 37,948 in Baltimore, 26,873 in Baltimore County, 15,745 in Harford County and 9,902 in Howard County.
"We're doing everything we can and then some," said David Austin, a BGE spokesman. "It's one of the worst storms in our history." BGE officials said heavy rain and high winds made this storm particularly difficult.
The ground was unusually waterlogged before the storm began, and Floyd's rain made it even wetter. Fierce winds then easily blew trees onto power lines.
"There were large trees falling down on a very large scale," said Austin.
Twelve hundred people are working to restore power. Seven utility companies from New York, Kentucky, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Virginia have sent crews to the region. It is the second time this year that BGE has requested outside help to restore power, officials said. The first was during January's ice storm.
Yesterday, BGE gave out free dry ice to customers in some of the hardest-hit areas of Baltimore City and Harford, Anne Arundel and Howard counties, but those supplies vanished.
As residents dealt with their own power problems and damages, public works officials scrambled to fix the pumping station, which sends nearly 20 million gallons of sewage a day to the Back River Waste Water Treatment plant in Baltimore County.
City officials played down health risks and posted signs along the Jones Falls warning about pollution hazards. They said the spill represented less than 1 percent of the Jones Falls' total daily outflow. City health officials did not return repeated phone calls, though a spokesman for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Clint R. Coleman, said there was a "minimal health risk."
Shortly after BGE substations cut off during the storm, city workers were able to divert about 8 million gallons a day to Back River, leaving 12 million gallons a day flowing into the Jones Falls.
After mechanics got one pump working yesterday, the flow into the Jones Falls ceased within minutes, officials said. The pump will be able to handle almost all the sewage except for a trickle if usage sharply rises, they said.
The other two pumps should be working by midweek. The pumping station is scheduled for an upgrade in the next few months, though officials said those improvements would not have helped Thursday.
The station, about four decades old, has never had an outage like this before, officials said.
But that didn't satisfy nearby residents, who said they noticed a flood of dirty water near the plant Thursday. They didn't learn until yesterday that the murky water also contained sewage.
Public works officials defended their response, saying they alerted state environmental officials to the spill and posted warning signs along the river.
"We took immediate action," said spokesman Robert Murrow. "We did what we were required to do."
Some residents noticed a foul odor Thursday that eventually diminished by Friday. But others said they didn't smell anything at all -- though they often smell sewage from the plant during summer evenings.
"The way the winds were blowing on Thursday, the odor didn't stay here," said Gaynell Smith, 64, who has lived on Ash Street for 45 years. "When that [plant] is working, we get all kinds of terrible odors."
They also questioned why the pumping station didn't have a generator to provide power in case both substations failed. But Slattery said a generator would cost too much to justify its use.
"It would take a big generator," he said.
Organizers of this weekend's Jones Falls Valley Celebration canceled kayaking and canoeing along the river yesterday morning because of storm debris, but the festivities will continue today, unhampered by the spill.
The high point of the celebration is still on for this morning, when the northbound lanes of the Jones Falls Expressway will be closed to traffic from 8 a.m. to noon to allow for a footrace and for the public to walk, bike and skate on the highway and view the river valley.
Michael Beer, founder of the Jones Falls Watershed Association, a sponsor of the event, said the spill would have little lasting impact.
"It will wash away pretty quickly," Beer said.
Tourists and residents walking near Pier Six in the Inner Harbor, where the Jones Falls empties, said they didn't understand why there weren't contingency plans.
Lee Haas, her daughter and granddaughter were walking along the Jones Falls yesterday. She couldn't believe that a pumping station would fail. "I certainly would never go swiming in there," said Haas, 69, of Akron, Ohio.
"It's yucky. I don't understand why they didn't have an alternative."
Despite those concerns, most residents -- even those on Ash Street by the pumping station -- said they were more concerned about their outages than sewage flowing down an urban river.
And many complained about losing their cable, which runs along power lines.
"I like to watch sports and the Sunday talk programs," said Pete Bernheim, 84, of Baltimore. "It is very important. I get nothing. I have no idea what their problems are -- I want my cable back."
City officials said most remaining cable outages will continue until BGE restores power citywide.
While some were left without their accustomed conveniences, others adapted. In Upper Falls in Baltimore County, the power outage hampered the Salem United Methodist Church's plans for its annual dinner theater Friday night and last night.
"They put candles in bags that lined the church parking lot so people could walk from the parking lot to the hall" said James Fisher, a member of the Bradshaw Road church.
More than 100 people each night ate a chicken dinner by candlelight, and "Honestly Now," a mystery-comedy about jewel thieves in the French Riviera, was performed under generator-powered lights. "It was the old 'show must go on' theory," said George Hudnut, a church member.
Sun staff writers Devon Spurgeon and Tim Craig contributed to this article.
State storm damage
The Maryland Emergency Management Agency released preliminary damage estimates in the state as a result of Hurricane Floyd. The preliminary $7.9 million* estimate, which will be refined early this week, includes damage to private property, public buildings, bridges, roads and other public infrastructure. The worst damage was in eight counties. The breakdown, so far:
Harford County $1.89 million
Cecil County $1.297 million
Charles County $1.06 million
Anne Arundel County $1 million
Carroll County $1 million
Kent County $684,000
Calvert County $500,000
Queen Anne's County $500,000
* Does not include damage estimates for federal highways.
SOURCE: MARYLAND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY