In Poe Homes water main break, Baltimore failed its most vulnerable

The time for patience, understanding and benefit of the doubt is long over, and there’s no other way to say it: The city’s handling of the water main break near Poe Homes in West Baltimore was horrible and put at risk the health of 281 of the city’s most vulnerable residents. Some were still experiencing water pressure problems this week.

City officials initially showed woefully insufficient concern about the deteriorating living conditions residents of the public housing complex dealt with after the June 17 break. The fact that they couldn’t take a shower, flush their toilets, wash dishes or cook certain foods seemed to have gotten lost in the early days of the break. On the fifth day, residents received what one of them described as a nonchalant letter suggesting people stay with relatives.

Only after media attention and a loud outcry from residents did public officials show some urgency in their response and start offering alternative living conditions, places to shower and a better supply of water. The outrage is loud now, but several days late.

Water is a basic human right, and although the city has its problems with poverty, Baltimore is not a developing nation. People should not have to beg for basic needs. They should not have to haul buckets of water from fire hydrants. The city’s aging infrastructure means that busted water mains are an irksome way of life that we all have to deal with. These breaks don’t discriminate and can happen in both the wealthiest and poorest of neighborhoods.

The difference is wealthy people can adjust. They can drive to the store and buy cases of bottled water, maybe stay in a hotel or find some other alternative. The city has a responsibility to make sure the needs of public housing residents are met — and it failed at that.

They are saying all the right things now, though late to the party. Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young has expressed outrage, as has Councilman John Bullock, whose district includes the Poe Homes. Council President Brandon Scott introduced a resolution earlier this week calling for a hearing on the matter. He said in a statement that it was “unacceptable for residents to be without water for this long” and called on several departments to testify on why the response to the break was botched.

Indeed, the public needs to hear from the Department of Public Works, which runs the water system, as well as the departments of health and the city’s public housing agency. We need to know what formal protocols exist for when residents lose water access and whether they were followed in this case. And we need to know how well the departments communicated with one another. It’s one thing for public works to respond to the structural break and it’s not unusual for complications to arise when coming up with a fix. But did they tell housing officials so they could also respond? Did they tell the health department? And for that matter, did they communicate with the residents or let them sit in their waterless apartments wondering what was going on? If there was communication, why wasn’t the reaction more urgent?

Whatever doubts residents had about whether the city knew what it was doing were bolstered by the spectacle of work crews removing and replacing toilets they had just installed two weeks earlier. The new, environmentally friendly toilets with smaller tanks turned out to be not so compatible with debris in the water lines of the development, which is the city’s oldest housing project. The toilets were part of upgrades made to all public housing complexes, and we applaud Housing Authority executive director Janet Abrahams for the effort to improve conditions. But this makes clear that a much more drastic project is needed to improve the living conditions of Poe Homes.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City received $1.3 million grant last year for a plan to revitalize the Poppleton-Hollins area, with an overhaul of Poe Homes to be a major focus. The need for it is more crucial than ever, and we look forward to seeing what the plan reveals.

In the meantime, we hope city officials learn from the current debacle. No level of urgency is too much when your most vulnerable residents lack running water.

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