A City Council committee on Wednesday repeatedly pressed the administration of Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young over June’s infrastructure failure at West Baltimore’s Poe Homes that left residents without running water for five days.
At a hearing at City Hall, Council President Brandon Scott called the city’s response to the water main break “unacceptable.” He said he wanted to make sure city government has a “robust” plan the next time pipes break and leave residents of public housing without water.
“We have to do better than before,” Scott said. “It’s not a question of if, but when, something similar will happen.”
In written testimony to the Land Use Committee, Department of Public Works Director Rudy Chow defended his agency’s response to the infrastructure failure. He said the repairs affecting Poe Homes took longer than expected because of difficulties and complications pertaining to aging pipes in Baltimore.
“Due to the age of the infrastructure, a series of leaks occurred, requiring pipe replacements and other repairs on infrastructure that dates back to the 20th century,” Chow wrote.
Several city officials said they would endeavor to provide a more coordinated response in the future to water outages.
Janet Abrahams, director of the Housing Authority, which operates public housing in the city, said she is developing an emergency response and preparedness plan for similar situations. When finalized, she wrote in testimony to the council, the plan would cover “mitigation, preparation, response and recovery operations for any type of major emergency or disaster."
The mid-June water outage prompted an outpouring of help from different groups, including donations of food and water. Neighboring University of Maryland, Baltimore opened its dorm bathrooms for residents to take showers, and volunteers grilled hot dogs and passed out chips and sandwiches to residents unable to cook in their kitchens.
The city’s housing authority and public works department provided bottled water.
Democratic City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke called the situation that occurred at Poe Homes the “direst of emergencies.” She suggested the council add money to the Department of Public Works’ budget to repair pipes more quickly.
“We should step up and do some additional funding to the Department of Public Works,” Clarke said.
Young, at his morning news conference at City Hall, suggested the hearing was political. Scott announced earlier this month that he is running for mayor; Young has yet to announce whether he will run. Both are Democrats.
“I’m not going to play into that," Young said of Scott’s hearing. “He has every right as council president to have a hearing on anything that he wants. In my estimation, it was not mishandled.”
Scott and Democratic City Councilman Ed Reisinger, who chairs the Land Use Committee, said they were disappointed Chow did not attend the hearing to answer questions. In addition to his written testimony, Chow had a representative speak to the committee.
“This isn’t the first time with Director Chow,” Scott said. “I don’t know if he wants a direct Twitter message, or what? But he needs to understand the significance of this."
Marcia Collins, Chow’s chief of legislative affairs, apologized for Chow’s absence and said she took responsibility for not placing the hearing on his calendar.
Reisinger said he rejected that.
“He’s a big boy,” the councilman said. “He should know to be here.”