As residents of southern Prince George’s County waited for spigots to run dry today, officials at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission issued new estimates on how long it would take to repair a 54-inch water main they say is about to rupture. Kojo gets the latest on how residents are preparing to endure several days without water during the hottest period of the summer so far.


  • Matt Bush Maryland Reporter, WAMU.
  • Roger Lewis Architect; Columnist, "Shaping the City," Washington Post; and Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Maryland College Park

Map: Water Distribution, Cooling Centers In Prince George’s County

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission is providing water to residents in the affected areas and the County has set-up three distribution points in the affected areas. Residents will be limited to 2 gallons per person. The distribution points will open from 12-9:00 p.m. on Wednesday, July 17 and from 8:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m. until the water outage is over. Residents must bring their own containers.

Two reception centers have also been opened, where residents will be able to shower, clean up and collect water. Cooling centers will also be open to the public from 10 a.m.-8 p.m.

The wavy lines represent water distribution points, the green homes are reception centers and the snowflakes are cooling centers.

View Water Distribution Centers In Prince George’s County in a larger map


  • 12:06:43

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, big box in the big city. We'll explore how Wal-Mart and other megastores are adapting their footprint for urban markets. Roger Lewis joins us in studio for that. He's the architect, columnist of the "Shaping the City" column in The Washington Post and professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park. Roger, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:07:22

    MR. ROGER LEWISThank you.

  • 12:07:22

    NNAMDIBut first, a water emergency in suburban Maryland. Up to 300,000 people are facing days without water in Prince George's County, almost a third of the county's entire population. After the area's water authority took the radical step of shutting down a massive water main last night, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission says it needs to shut down the 54-inch pipe because it was on the verge of a major failure.

  • 12:07:49

    NNAMDISo it warned all residents yesterday to fill up their bathtubs and prepare for several days without water. The county is scrambling to set up community centers where residents can get water, use the bathroom and take a shower. Local businesses are bracing for a blow to their bottom lines, and local residents are asking, why is this happening to them in the midst of a blazing summer heat wave? WAMU 88.5 reporter Matt Bush has visited the site of the water main in Forestville, and he's been surveying the preparations for a very difficult week ahead. Matt Bush, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:08:24

    MR. MATT BUSHGood afternoon, Kojo.

  • 12:08:26

    NNAMDIMatt, last night, the WSSC shut down this water main. Technically, water is still flowing in the pipes, but it's probably going to run out very soon. Can you explain to us exactly what happened and who is affected by it?

  • 12:08:39

    BUSHWell, what happened over the weekend -- there are wires on this pipe, and they -- so they're acoustic fiber optic wires. And what happens when they start breaking, it can -- it's a sign that the pipe is about to break, and a lot of those wires started snapping over the weekend with a higher frequency. Once that happened, the WSSC realized that this pipe -- which is a 54-inch pipe, very big one -- was about to break.

  • 12:09:04

    BUSHSo they filled the water system up as much as they could through to nine o'clock last night and sent out the warning to everybody to stock up on water and all that. And then at nine o'clock last night, that pipe was taken out of service, and the water that was in the system at that time was as high as they could make it so people could use it for about 12 to 15 hours before it ran out. They were telling everybody to make sure they conserve water and all that and then stock.

  • 12:09:27

    BUSHAnd then once that water ran out, which the -- during -- going by their time frame, it would have been -- it would have run out at noon today, just 10 minutes ago -- then they were left to use the water they had stockpiled or the water that they could go get, and then all these other facilities that the county is opening up to people that they can use to shower and go to the bathroom and those sorts of things.

  • 12:09:48

    NNAMDIWe're talking with WAMU 88.5 reporter Matt Bush about the water situation in Prince George's County. You can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Architect Roger Lewis is in studio with us. Do you live in the affected region? How are you preparing? Do you have any questions or concerns that you feel need to be addressed? Give us a call, 800-433-8850.

  • 12:10:10

    NNAMDIYou can also check out our special page at -- that address, -- and share your stories with us through the Public Insight Network. Matt, this is going to be a major, major inconvenience for almost a third of 1 million people, but it could be much more than that for some. What kinds of plans are being drawn up for seniors and other vulnerable populations?

  • 12:10:35

    BUSHWell, a lot of people have stepped up. A lot of companies and businesses and things that are outside of the affected area have stepped up to bring water to these facilities, to nursing homes and hospitals and all that, and many of them also have their own backup plans in that they're using. But for -- they think that they will -- you know, the plans, whether they would be taken care of. It sounds like it gets to a lot of other people who aren't in those facilities. They're the ones who are going to have to use these reception centers, as the county is calling them, where they will have showers and things like that.

  • 12:11:06

    BUSHAnd, of course, you know, showering in heat like this, you know, it could come to the point -- you know, maybe some people shower two to three times a day when it's this hot because of how much they sweat and how much they end up smelling. And, you know, these people now, they don't -- not able to do that at home. They have to drive to an area to be able to shower or use the bathroom.

  • 12:11:23

    BUSHThat was one of the things the WSSC was telling everybody is they should fill up their bathtubs with water so they could use it to flush their toilets. And they're telling people not to flush the toilet every time they have to use it. But it's a big inconvenience, particularly given the weather. It could not have happened at a worse time.

  • 12:11:40

    NNAMDIRoger Lewis, we've talked on this broadcast before about our aging infrastructure, the importance of water in our built environment, not just for drinking. The idea of aging infrastructure has always felt like a long-term problem, but here we have evidence that it's very urgent and immediate. And I guess most people are wondering, whatever happens to ongoing maintenance? Why is it that we suddenly are confronted with this, what seems to be emergency situation?

  • 12:12:06

    LEWISWell, of course, one of the problems is that you can't -- there's not much maintenance you can do on a 54-inch waterline that's buried several feet underground. I mean, I think that -- actually, they've done what they should have done, which is they have a monitoring system, and they were able to detect what was going to be a probable problem.

  • 12:12:25

    LEWISUnlike the one that occurred not too many months ago up here off Connecticut Avenue in Montgomery County where the line exploded, and they had water gushing out, going dozens of feet in the air, here this is, in fact, repair work being done in anticipation of a possible problem. I think that what I read into this, along with everything that Matt Bush has said, is, of course, this is -- this could be looked at as a bellwether, as a signal.

  • 12:12:53

    LEWISJust as the civil engineers have been yelling about bridges and roads and the fact that we're -- we've overloaded a lot of things, I think waterlines and sewer lines and -- are at risk, and I think that we are -- we do need to get serious about the reality that not all of this is long term. Some of the stuff is just around the corner. And I think what we can do now that we couldn't do in past decades is we can detect some of these deficiencies in ways we couldn't before and then fix them.

  • 12:13:24

    NNAMDIWell, Matt Bush has been reporting about a lot of this which has been taking place in Montgomery County. This is the first emergency of this type we've been hearing in Prince George's County. But, Roger, from a design and development perspective, suburban Washington as a whole has changed radically aboveground over the past 40 years. But all that changed. All the new density, the new mixed-use megaproject -- all of that stuff is being built on top of pipes that weren't intended maybe to serve that many people. Where does that leave us?

  • 12:13:55

    LEWISWell, again, theoretically, projects are supposed to be approved only on the condition that there are adequate public facilities. I mean, I think that what -- if you went around and interviewed everybody in these various counties and these suburban jurisdictions, they would tell you, well, we've done the calculations, and we still have the capacity. I think there are -- I think we -- there probably are places where there are serious overloads, you know, where there are things where we're stretched to the limit, and maybe there is a point where you can't add any more population or any more development.

  • 12:14:28

    LEWISThere are two things at work here. One is the one you've just alluded to, which is development that has outpaced what was predicted 30, 40, 50, 80 years ago when the stuff was built. The other thing that's happened, of course, is technology has changed. So we do have toilets that use less water when you flush them. I mean, there are -- you can come at this in a number of ways, including on the demand side.

  • 12:14:52

    LEWISSo we have the same issue with roads. I mean, to the extent that we can get more and more multimodal transportation available to people, a road that may have been designed based on assumptions 20 to 30 years ago that's overloaded today might actually not be so overloaded in 20 to 30 years when we are doing other things besides driving cars.

  • 12:15:13

    NNAMDIMatt Bush, I mentioned that you have been reporting about these events in Montgomery County. This is, it would appear, the first of its kind in Prince George's County. What have you been hearing from residents there, shock, surprise?

  • 12:15:25

    BUSHI think one -- some that I spoke with, at least, were grateful that they got the warning on this, at least, that this wasn't like some of the ones that happened in Montgomery County that just broke without warning and actually broke. Again, the one real difference with this one as opposed to some of the other ones is that they were able to get to this pipe before it broke. The only difference is that, you know, this pipe has not -- some of the other ones in other areas, they're able to route water through other water mains to still serve people.

  • 12:15:55

    BUSHThis particular pipe, they're not able to do that with. There's no redundancy, as they call it. So that's what makes this so different. But there's a level of frustration, as anyone would expect, again, just given the weather. I mean, the heat and humidity like this kind of may get people a little miserable to begin with. Ironically, we're miserable to begin with. And not being able to have water or have air-conditioning, for the most part, that's also something they could have issues with.

  • 12:16:23

    BUSHBut not having water, not being able to use the bathroom and shower, that's really what has people frustrated, and it is -- to the point of, you know, this could be a bellwether for this. Again, it's not the first time that this happened in the WSSC system. Again, there's been all those -- and I think the one that most people remember is the one that happened in 2008 on River Road, right by Congressional Country Club, when that water main broke, and people had to be rescued from their cars with helicopters.

  • 12:16:50

    BUSHAnd since then, we've seen some other breaks. There was another one that year that restaurants in Montgomery County above the Beltway had to be closed for a day 'cause the water pressure was so low. It was contaminated. And then the one this year that Roger mentioned on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase Lake, that took a long time to clean up as well.

  • 12:17:07


  • 12:17:08

    LEWISWell, just a word about air-conditioning. I think everybody knows that their home and apartment air-conditioning usually are -- the heat exchange. You're throwing heat out of the apartment. That's done through air, transfer of the heat through air blowing over a coil. And large buildings, in institutional and commercial buildings, office buildings, they generally get rid of the heat from air-conditioning of the building by -- in a cooling tower, which involves water.

  • 12:17:36

    LEWISAnd you need makeup water because a lot of that water is evaporating. That's how you get rid of the heat. So we do have a problem with air-conditioning in a lot of the buildings. The Gaylord Hotel, for example, which is...

  • 12:17:46

    NNAMDII was about to get to that.

  • 12:17:47

    LEWISThat shut down. There's no way they can air-condition that building if they have no water in order to do the heat exchange necessary to get rid of the heat being exhausted from the building.

  • 12:17:57

    NNAMDIYes, indeed. Matt Bush, this water emergency is affecting not only the Gaylord, but all of the businesses in National Harbor. It's a major hub of economic activity in the county, but it could conceivably have a huge impact on the entire county's economy and on smaller businesses across the affected area. Any indications of how they're reacting?

  • 12:18:17

    BUSHThey're trying to deal with it. I'm sure some of them will, you know, close down. But, you know, taking the example of what happened in Montgomery County -- I believe it was 2008 when they told the restaurants to shut down 'cause they weren't going to have water -- you know, many of them didn't, and they just kept going about their business by buying bottled water and using that for, you know, cooking and cleaning and all that sort of thing.

  • 12:18:38

    BUSHSo imagine a lot of these businesses in Prince George's County will use the water that's being shipped in by, you know, these -- lots of nonprofits and businesses they're bringing in to be able to stay open throughout the -- to be able to help people. But it's (unintelligible), not just in the National Harbor. This includes Joint Base Andrews, and that's a lot of businesses that are tied to that, in that area, that won't have water either, and that's going to really hurt them.

  • 12:19:03

    NNAMDIWe're getting a tweet from Patrick Madden of WAMU 88.5 News. He says the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, WSSC, says the 54-inch main situation has substantially improved. They're not lifting restrictions, but they say a major disaster has been averted. We think John in Daisy, Md. has some advice for people. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:19:26

    JOHNThank you very much. I don't know whether it's been said on your show today -- and I think I've only seen it one time on national news -- about water heaters. Basically, if you don't have water and a water heater, you can burn it up and/or have a potential for fire.

  • 12:19:53

    NNAMDISo you're thinking -- saying in the absence of water, people should simply turn off their water heaters?

  • 12:19:57

    JOHNYes, sir. All water heaters are on a circuit breaker, a fuse...

  • 12:20:04

    NNAMDIMatt Bush, do you know if the WSSC has asked people to do that or offered that advice?

  • 12:20:10

    BUSHWith water heaters? Not that I know of. No. Their biggest thing that they were giving people advice yesterday was to use -- you know, was to fill the water -- full up bathtubs and containers. Water heater is not one that I remember hearing.

  • 12:20:22

    NNAMDII guess that's something we can ask about when we get a chance. But before we go, Matt, they say the WSSC does that a major disaster had been -- has been averted. What would have happened if this water main had actually broken?

  • 12:20:36

    BUSHNow, this is in a wooded area where this pipe is right off of Forestville, right inside the Beltway. It would've gone down the hill, the water. So it wouldn't have been -- if we're to use the image again of River Road in 2008, it wouldn't have done that necessarily. It wouldn't have affected a road or traffic. They wouldn't have had to get people out of cars with helicopters. But it would've gone down a hill, and that certainly could've affected.

  • 12:20:56

    BUSHThere were some homes and apartment complex down there that certainly could have affected the ground and cause, you know, mudslides and landslides and that sort of thing. I think that was maybe the physical problems that would've arisen from it. But they also -- so they would've lost millions of gallons of water, which would've been, you know, it could've taken longer to restore service had they lost all that water to people by having that much water lost.

  • 12:21:20

    BUSHAs I remember, again, River Road was one that was similar with pipe and scope and all that. It took I'd say at least a week for water to be back in full service and never went out totally like it would appear. But it did take about a week before service was back to normal.

  • 12:21:37

    NNAMDIWell, we'll have to see how this one goes. Matt Bush of WAMU 88.5. He is in Forestville, Md. in Prince George's County reporting on the water situation. Matt, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:21:47

    BUSHThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:21:48

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, big box in the big city. We're exploring how Wal-Mart and other mega stores are adapting their footprint for urban markets. If you've got comments or questions, you can start calling now, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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