Hundreds of thousands of residents as well as businesses in southern Prince George's County got a huge reprieve Wednesday when they learned they likely will keep their water service this week, after all, thanks to the ingenuity of some dedicated WSSC workers.
No customers went without water this week thanks to the closure of a key valve in the failing pipeline, WSSC General Manager and CEO Jerry Johnson announced Wednesday. However, the utility kept water restrictions in place while they made emergency repairs to a 54-inch main that showed signs of imminent failure.
Construction was completed Thursday, and the pipe is completely sealed. WSSC flushed it to cleanse it and test the integrity of the pipe, then tested the water to confirm it meets EPA standards. The water was deemed safe to drink Friday evening and the mandatory restrictions were lifted.
“First and foremost we want to thank our residential and business customers for their incredible patience throughout this evolving situation," Johnson said. “We are fully aware this was an extremely difficult week to be confronted with both water restrictions and a heat wave. We are heartened that the response to our calls for conservation were taken so seriously. Customers used less water, and that took a significant strain off of our system while repairs were carried out.”
The news Wednesday that more than 100,000 customers would not lose water was a welcome surprise in the county, although the looming outage had already shuttered businesses and led residents to fill bathtubs and stock up on bottled water in preparation.
Five hotels at National Harbor had begun to empty when they received word of the new outlook, with at least one convention moved and hundreds of visitors checked out and shuttle-bused to other hotels. Some guests spent hundreds or thousands of dollars to change flight reservations.
Most stores and all restaurants also closed at National Harbor, as did restaurants throughout the affected area, and summer camps had relocated their campers outside the affected area.
Thursday, National Harbor still looked like a ghost town, News4's Tracee Wilkins reported.
The Prince George's County Health Department advised Wednesday afternoon that restaurants and other establishments operating under Health Department guidelines can reopen, according to Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker. At National Harbor, restaurants reopened Wednesday evening.
Johnson said the Health Department did the right thing asking businesses to close.
“We could not make an announcement to say go ahead and open your business because we did not know if we were going to have this water,” he said.
A local declaration of emergency had been announced Tuesday evening, with fire and emergency services scrambling to prepare. Eight tanker trucks that carry up to 3,000 gallons each were put on standby in case of a fire in an area without access to water.
Local cooling centers and water distribution centers had opened, and the radio station Hot 99.5 even rented a hotel room to give Prince George's residents showers.
But with Wednesday's announcement, many of those preparations weten't needed -- though the utility was careful to point out that water use was still being restricted.
The utility explained Wednesday that they had been able to limit the amount of pipe that needed to be replaced. Crews were finally able to unstick a valve (pictured right) that had been difficult to close, making the repair job easier and averting the crisis.
"Some dedicated workers volunteered to give the key valve another try, and we had been working on this since Saturday,” Johnson said. “And thanks to some ingenuity they came up with, they were able to shut down the valve, which allowed us to divert water from one part of the system into another, which is what we would like to do whenever we have a water main break so we don’t have as many customers out of service. The valve that they worked on was in a valve box only one person could get into, and this valve box was about 6 or 8 feet in the ground, so it was very tedious work they did to correct this problem, and basically jury-rigged … this particular valve to make it work."
Thanks to wires installed in the large-diameter concrete pipe about three weeks ago, the WSSC detected 37 reinforcement wire breaks in a couple of days, Johnson said.
The valve's gears were so corroded, WSSC didn't think they could close it. They contacted the manufacturer and machine shop and were told they might be able to get a solution in a week to a month, but the reinforcement wire breaks were ocurring more frequently.
Tom Ecker, who has worked at WSSC for 20 years and whose parents also worked for WSSC, and his partner Brad Destelhorst asked if they could give the valve another try Tuesday. For 14 hours, they worked in a narrow, 20-foot-deep hole trying to figure out how to close that valve. Using a hand grinder, chisels and scrapers, they managed to clean the gears, and they made a bracket to hold the gears together when they turned the valve, which they did 400 times to close the valve.
“What was at stake with the system, either I was going to have to get broken or every tool I had was going to have to get broken in order to get this done,” Destelhorst said.
“No one should have to go without water,” he added. “That’s the way I look at it. That’s why we’re here. That’s our job.”
He and Destelhorst said they aren't heroes, they were just doing their jobs.
“We come to work every day and we go home,” Ecker said. “We fix valves all the time. It’s nice to be recognized, but we like to be humble about it.”
WSSC didn't have much time to address the valve problem because if the pipe exploded, the problem would have been much worse, a "potential public safety disaster," according to WSSC.
Had the utility not been able to close the valve, the repair area would have been 3.1 miles of pipe, a job that would take three to five days. Now, they only need to repair 0.8 miles, which will take two to three days. Repairs are going smoothly, WSSC said Wednesday afternoon, as no water is going into the ditch where the work is being performed.
"If we continue to conserve, I am confident the system will remain full while we complete repairs," Johnson said. "I want to thank our customers who have done a terrific job of conserving, Prince George's County officials for their efforts, and to thank our employees who wouldn't give up on a troublesome valve."
The water main, which officials said started to fail this spring, is located between Suitland Parkway and Forestville Road.
WSSC instructed customers in the affected area that they should adhere to these restrictions while repairs were made:
- Stop all outside water use -- no watering lawns, shrubs or flowers; no washing cars; no topping off swimming pools
- Use water only as necessary -- i.e., take shorter showers and turn off faucets after washing hands
- Limit flushing toilets (do not flush after every use)
- Postpone using washing machines and dishwashers
"After we get through this crisis, we will sit down with WSSC and look at every pipe in Prince George's County," said Baker in a press conference Tuesday.
Bottled Water Runs Low; Businesses Close
WSSC had said residents should store one to two gallons of safe water per person per day, as well as water for pets to drink. Distilled water should be purchased for anyone who suffers from a chronic health problem or has a weakened immune system.
Water stored in bathtubs could have been used to flush toilets. (See more tips here.)
Prince George's County resident Belinda Hughes hit the store early Tuesday to stock up on bottled water. Although she said she was ready, she wasn't looking forward to the possibility of two to five days without water.
"Not good, especially when it comes to maybe washing dishes or doing laundry or just drinking water, period..." Hughes said.
Down the street, Kanayo Ok was using the hose while he still could. "I'm trying to fill up this trashcan, so I can have water for me and my family," he said.
News4's Shomari Stone spoke with a resident who was very upset about the short notice by WSSC.
"I'm just flabbergasted," homeowner Jeff Anderson said. "It's outrageous that they didn't let anybody know. How can we go days without water?"
At an assisted-living facility in Temple Hills, preparations for the six residents -- some older than 100 -- began early Tuesday, said Prince George's County Bureau reporter Zachary Kiesch.
“Since 8:30 this morning I’ve been running back and forth to the store, making sure that we have what they’re going to need for the next day or so, and if it goes longer than two days then we’re going to have to start taking them to a hotel,” Timothy Counte said.
Local businesses had braced themselves for the shutoff. "Everything we do, we rely on water," said Young Kim with Today's Seafood and Crab. "We have to have water to keep all our stuff fresh and clean and on top of that, we use water to steam everything."
By 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, the bottled water supply was already low at Shoppers in Forestville, Kiesch reported.
Gaylord National Hotels at National Harbor had been scheduled to close at noon Wednesday and reopen Saturday. The Drug Court Professionals Convention checked out Wednesday morning. Gaylord provided breakfast and bottled water Wednesday morning.
The next couple of days were expected to be slow for Gaylord, spokesperson Amie Gorrell said. Another convention was postponed and a convention starting Saturday is moving to another hotel in the region.
Gaylord was supposed to host the closing banquet of the 51st Delta Sigma Theta sorority convention Wednesday at 6 p.m., Stone reported. Now they’re trying to figure out what to do next.
“Our guest numbers were over 8,000 today, and those same 8,000 were to come back tomorrow night for our closing banquet, so we don’t know what we’re going to do right now because we haven’t heard from our sorority of where our venue will change to or if it’s just canceled altogether,” Valarie Lucky said.
Gaylord officials told News4 the banquet was canceled, but Delta Sigma Theta did not comment.
The National Children's Museum at National Harbor planned to close Wednesday through Friday due to the restrictions but now plans to reopen Friday.
The Prince George's County Memorial Library System planned to close the Hillcrest Heights Branch and Oxon Hill Branch Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
Some Prince George's Count Public Schools summer programs in the area planned to close Wednesday and Thursday. Click here for the complete list.
Joint Base Andrews was conducting only mission-essential operations beginning 9 p.m. Tuesday, with many facilities be shut down. Airmen were bringing in portable water tanks and toilet facilities and planned to distribute them throughout the base. A list of closed facilities is available on Andrews' Facebook page.
Bob Dennis told News4's Gordon he would close his laundry in Hillcrest Height for the duration of the restrictions.
"I lost business," he said. "There's a great loss there."
WSSC’s newest appointee, business owner Mary Hopkins-Navies, said, “I have three restaurants that will be impacted by this water main [repair]... but we’ll work through it.”
“From a small business perspective, I’m extremely concerned,” she said. “Of course it’s going to have a financial impact on the small business folks in the county.”
“Situations like this cause a terrible economic impact,” said Lyn Riggins of WSSC. “We certainly understand that. It’s part of why you see the pipe here. We’re doing everything we can to make this repair happen as quickly as we can.”
According to the WSSC, county emergency services had planned to work with hospitals, nursing homes and others to ensure they have access to water.
Businesses and nonprofits began donating water Tuesday, Baker said.
The utility published an online interactive map to identify the affected area, though the utility's web site was difficult to use due to high volume.