Hundreds of thousands of people in suburban Washington are sweating through a punishing heat wave under orders to avoid long showers, turn off sprinklers and think twice about flushing the toilet.
Carwashes, day care centers and fast-food restaurants shut their doors Wednesday. And the military base that is home to the president's Air Force One was reduced to essential operations.
The reason for the restrictions: urgent repairs to a nearly 50-year-old water main in Prince George's County that authorities said was in danger of exploding.
More than 200,000 residents and businesses in the county are under mandatory water restrictions, possibly for days, while the mercury is expected to climb into the 90s.
The warning to the public came late Monday night, giving people about 24 hours to stock up on bottled water and prepare for days without washing clothes or dishes.
Still, things could have been worse. Officials initially warned that faucets could run dry for several days during the repairs.
But on Wednesday, officials said they were able to divert enough water to keep it flowing. They said the water main should be back in service in two or three days if nothing unexpected happens.
"If we continue to conserve we're confident that the system will remain full while we complete the repairs on the pipe and return it to service," said Jerry N. Johnson, general manager of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.
Johnson said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon that a fiber-optic detection system found 37 cracks in the nearly 50-year-old concrete main in a period of four to five days. Had the 4 1/2-foot main not been shut down, it would have exploded, possibly creating a large crater, Johnson said.
The concrete pipe was installed around 1965.
Crews were able to avoid shutting off water to residents because they were able to close a large valve nearby. The valve had faulty gears that had to be modified in order to work properly, Johnson said.
Residents were told to postpone using dishwashers and washing machines, to limit the flushing of toilets and to take short showers.
Johnson defended the commission's decision to warn people they would be without water because he said it didn't become apparent until late Wednesday morning that a work-around was possible.
"We know that businesses had to shut down. We caused some angst," Johnson said. "But we're very pleased that it ended up this way as opposed to the pipe blowing out or having to shut it down and having people without water."
Joint Base Andrews, which is home to Air Force One and has 16,000 residents and workers, shut down all but the most critical operations. A base clinic was accepting only emergency patients.
At the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at National Harbor on the Potomac River, the hotel had closed Wednesday, affecting a small number of guests, but planned to reopen Thursday.
At a kidney dialysis center in Oxon Hill, a tanker truck pumped water into the clinic, which uses 5,000 gallons a day. And a Shoppers Food Warehouse just off the Capital Beltway in Oxon Hill was restocking the shelves with hundreds of jugs of water after customers bought them all.
Residents were delighted the crisis wasn't as bad as they feared.
"Thank the Lord!" said Tina Wiseman, a cashier, after learning that her water would not be shut off.
"I can't live without water for five days. I'm clean. I take a lot of showers," she said.
John Smith, a bus driver who lives in Temple Hills, had two 24-packs of bottled water in his shopping cart when he found out his water would not be shut off. He said he planned to buy them anyway, but grumbled: "Fine time to tell everybody."
"I just went home and filled my bathtubs up. I've got eight other buckets around the house," he said.
Tony Hall of Washington was surprised by the effects of the water crisis.
"I went to McDonald's, and they were closed. It takes a lot to close down a McDonald's," he said. "If a McDonald's closes, the world is about to come to an end."
By BEN NUCKOLS and JESSICA GRESKO Associated Press
Gresko reported from Washington. Associated Press reporters Sarah Brumfield and in Washington and Brian Witte in Annapolis contributed to this report.
FROM WSSC PRESS RELEASE:
Laurel – July 17, 2013: Repairs on the 54-inch pipe in Forestville continue to move forward without complications. Earlier today work crews installed “trench box” surrounding the failing pipe and then began cutting out the weakened section. This cutting will continue for hours and then the replacement pipe will need to be fitted into place. Once repairs to the pipe are completed it will take several more days for the work to conclude.
As reported earlier today, a water emergency in southern Prince George’s County was averted when dedicated WSSC workers “unfroze” and closed a key valve near the failing pipe. Positive developments regarding the repairs, coupled with news of ongoing conservation efforts, means WSSC will be able to repair the failing pipe with no disruption in service to customers.
However, mandatory water restrictions remain in effect. “If we continue to conserve, I am confident the system will remain full while we complete repairs,” said Jerry N. Johnson, WSSC General Manager/CEO earlier today. “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 restrictions are mandatory to preserve firefighting capabilities and to ensure a continuous supply in the system. To find out if you are in the affected area, please visit our online interactive map.
Until repairs are complete, it is imperative that all business and residential customers restrict their water use. The less water that is used, the longer it will be available for critical functions to customers in this affected area.
Customers need to:
- Stop all outside water use – no watering lawns, shrubs, flowers; no washing cars, no topping off swimming pools
- Use water only as necessary – i.e., shorter showers and turn off faucets after washing hands
- Limit flushing toilets (do not flush after every use)
- Postpone using washing machines and dishwashers
These mandatory water restrictions apply to WSSC customers, commercial and residential, in the affected area of Prince George’s counties.
Statement of Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker, III
Upper Marlboro, MD - Tonight, Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker released the following statement regarding the water restrictions in portions of Southern Prince George's County. Earlier this afternoon, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) announced that South County residents will not lose water due to the replacement of a 54-inch concrete pipeline that appeared to be failing. However, mandatory water restrictions remain in place for the impacted area.
Today, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) announced that South County residents will not lose water due to the replacement of a 54-inch concrete pipeline that was failing. This announcement comes as a result of some amazing work done by two committed WSSC workers who got a valve to work that enable our residents to go without any break in service. Their commitment and efforts of so many in this County and region are why we were able to make it through what could have been several very difficult days for the 150,000 residents of this County who live in the affected areas.
I want to thank the people of Prince George's County for their patience, understanding and for chipping in and being good neighbors and adhering to the restrictions and conserving water, we made it through together! We have some great neighbors in this region that helped us through this. I want to thank our regional and state partners, and all the dedicated employees of Prince George's County for the hours of work they put in to ensure that our residents were safe and secure.
Although we appear to be out of the woods, we still are under mandatory water restrictions for the impacted area. Residents are advised to utilize water only when necessary and to take short showers, turn off faucets after washing hands, limit flushing toilets, and postpone using washing machines and dishwashers. We must continue our conservation efforts. WSSC is confident that the system will remain fully operational while repairs are completed to the pipeline and returned to service. As a precaution, the Prince George's County Office of Emergency Management will continue operations and services that were set-up for this water shortage until 9:00 pm tonight.
Even though this is great news, we also we realize that this event had a significant impact on our economy. People were inconvenienced and businesses lost money, but we did what we had to do to prepare for the anticipated loss of water service.
For me, the silver lining of this event was seeing the thousands of citizens, businesses, and stakeholders who volunteered and donations of water to our impacted residents. Throughout this County, State, and Country a crisis brings out the best in us. It is times like these when people come together to help one another. Our water crisis this week proved no different.
I would like to acknowledge the following organizations and businesses for their unsolicited outreach to assist our residents:
- The American Red Cross
- Bob Hall Distributors
- CBS Radio
- Giant Food
- Food and Friends
- Governor O'Malley and Lt. Governor Brown
- Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA)
- Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG)
- The National Guard
- The Peterson Companies
- The Salvation Army
- Washington Redskins
These companies, organizations and many other individuals provided outstanding support during this situation and we thank everyone for their generous donations, efforts and service. We are not out of the woods yet, so let's keep on conserving water. Thank you.
Statement from Maryland Lt. Governor Anthony Brown on Prince George’s County Water Main Repair:
"Earlier today we received very encouraging news from WSSC about the repair of the water main in Prince George’s County. I want to remind everyone, however, that the mandatory water restrictions are still in place. It’s important that we continue working together to conserve water in the affected areas. And with this heat wave, it’s also very important to continue checking in on our neighbors, especially households with seniors and children.
"I commend Prince George’s County Executive Baker and the entire emergency response team for their leadership and seamless collaboration throughout this process. The Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) has been engaged in the events surrounding the repair of the WSSC water main and has been working hand-in-hand with Prince George’s County and WSSC to provide additional resources. Together we will continue to closely monitor the repairs and keep the public informed of any changes in this ongoing situation.
"Finally, I want to thank our residents in the affected area of Prince George’s County for coming together as a community to handle this situation with patience and understanding. The repair is still ongoing so we will all need to continue working together as a community to ensure this situation is resolved as quickly and safely as possible.
"Again, I just want to reiterate that the water restrictions are still in place, so let’s continue to work together in the affected area to conserve water.”
What you need to know during PG water main repair
PG water distribution areas, reception centers during mandatory water restrictions
Cooling stations in Prince George's Co. to help deal with water problem
WTTG FOX 5 & myfoxdc
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