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Waiting for water: Residents count on city crews to deliver

As city crews move through thousands of water outages, leaks some left without service for weeks

Baltimore fire inspectors Del Holmes and Dennis Dawson set out Thursday in a four-wheel-drive Ford Escape to check on families and businesses that have been without water — some for weeks — during the region's deep freeze.

Inside a convenience store on West Saratoga Street, they delivered a dozen water bottles to business owner Hamzah Alhuthifi, who said in halting English that he's had no water for "two weeks and three days."

Alhuthifi, who is from Yemen, has found the situation confusing and frustrating. He's not sure why his water isn't working, and he doesn't understand why his heat is out, too.

"I called a lot of times," said Alhuthifi, who lives in an apartment above the store. "They came out and left."

The Fire Department workers tried to reassure him that the city would attend to his problem. "Nobody's been forgotten," Holmes said.

Alhuthifi is among 500 customers of Baltimore's antiquated water system who were without service Thursday because of frozen, broken or cracked pipes and meters. Those without water include about 375 homes and businesses in the city and another 125 in Baltimore County.

After Holmes and Dawson left the store, they alerted various city offices to Alhuthifi's situation so housing and public works employees could follow up.

Fire Department crews have been deployed this week to deliver drinking water, check on residents and pump out flooded basements while other city workers and contractors warm frozen pipes and repair broken lines and meters.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said it's part of an all-hands-on-deck approach to a breakdown of the water system. The Department of Public Works has been operating a 24-hour command center, extended employee shifts to 16 hours and called in extra help to respond to over 6,000 complaints since mid-February.

Families who have been without water the longest are prioritized as crews work to restore water service, Rawlings-Blake said. Of the 500 homes and businesses without water, 70 have not had service for more than three days.

"We realize the extreme frustration," the mayor said. "I hear them, and we are working around the clock with all resources at our disposal."

In Mount Vernon, Ronny Thompson, 25, and his five housemates have been without water for nearly two weeks because of frozen pipes. They've called 311 many times and hired a plumber. They've gotten conflicting information about whether it's the city's responsibility to fix the problem.

Thompson, who works for a mortgage company, said the plumber couldn't pinpoint where the line was frozen. City workers, on two separate visits, hung placards on the doorknob. One from Sunday said the problem was the city's responsibility and repairs were scheduled. The other, from Wednesday, said the public works crew did not find a leak or water-related problem.

In between those visits, Thompson said he called 311 to check on progress. One operator told him workers couldn't even find a complaint on file. Another said a crew had been dispatched, but left because they couldn't find the meter buried under snow.

The housemates have been melting buckets of snow next to their radiator to flush toilets, and showering at their gyms, offices and relatives' homes.

"It's pretty miserable," Thompson said. "I feel like I am eating very unhealthy and getting fatter and broker because you're spending so much money eating out. It's very inconvenient, and I am wasting lots of time trying to find a solution."

The housemates have taken creative steps. They tried blowing a hair dryer on the pipes and clamped an iron on one. They had hoped Wednesday's warmer weather would bring the water flowing again.

So far, nothing has worked.

"Our best hope is it warming up, not the city," Thompson said.

Some City Council members say they think the city has performed well, given the weather, the aging infrastructure and the vast number of problems reported.

Asked about apparent confusion, Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said, "We try very hard to get it right the first time. With the number of calls they've been dealing with, I think the margin of error is to be expected.

"We could do a little better. We just have to work on it."

Councilman Bill Henry pinned the blame on Washington. He said Congress should give local governments more money to invest in infrastructure. Baltimore has done a good job of doing more with less, he said.

"This is what we're supposed to have a national government for, to make big investments," Henry said. "Their failure to properly address infrastructure has been incredible and will lead to catastrophic failures across the country."

Rawlings-Blake said whittling down the number of outstanding water problems from thousands to hundreds was the result of "aggressive efforts."

The city had 11 investigative teams, 14 repair crews and 20 contractors deployed Thursday, and work was expected to continue through the night. More than 90 repairs were completed overnight Wednesday into Thursday, and officials expect to "surpass" that number from Thursday night into Friday.

Mamie E. Bryan watched the crews work overnight earlier this week to restore water to her late mother's home near Poplar Grove Street and Gwynns Falls Parkway in West Baltimore.

Bryan said she'd been without water, and heat from the furnace, since Feb. 21. She came down from Philadelphia to care for her mother, who died Feb. 18 at age 98. Bryan stayed on to plan her mother's memorial and attend to other matters.

She was up until 4 a.m. Wednesday while crews dug up the street to warm a frozen pipe. Once they were done, they needed to come inside the house to check whether the fix worked.

"I am very happy it was resolved and very much aware, after having watched how long it took and how many trucks were involved, that it took a lot of manpower," Bryan said.

"It's a mammoth task."

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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