Fourteen Fort Washington families ordered from their homes nearly four weeks ago are planning to return Friday, saying they cannot wait for the Prince George’s County government to repair damage a landslide caused to their road and utilities.
County officials said although they “cannot permit these residents to return to their homes,” they will not physically stop them if they want to defy the evacuation order and assume the risk.
The government said it needs up to two more weeks to determine the stability of the collapsing hillside, the availability of water and sewer service, and whether emergency vehicles can access the area as needed.
“It’s time for us to go home,” said Debbie Kutzleb, who on Friday evening plans to return to her home, about a half-mile down Piscataway Drive from the failing slope. “We have mortgages to pay.”
Starting May 5, 28 homes were declared off-limits by the county. Six, atop the hill that overlooks Piscataway Drive, may have sustained structural damage when the slope collapsed after torrential downpours. The rest are on lower ground, scattered along the dead-end road beyond the rupture caused by the landslide, and do not seem to have been directly impacted.
The 14 families want to return to some of those homes. They have asked officials to consider running aboveground pipes to supply water and other temporary utilities. But those ideas were shot down at a community meeting a week ago.
On Thursday, county officials said residents could call the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission individually to try to arrange for water service.
“At this point, it’s unclear on what the way forward is,” said James Roy, one of the residents who plan to return. “We are just not receiving enough information on the process and haven’t seen any action on a short-term re-entry plan while they make long-term fixes.”
Nicholas Majett, Prince George’s chief administrative officer, said that with the hillside still sliding, occupying the homes is too risky. If Piscataway Drive cracks further, he said, police and fire personnel might not be able to access homes in an emergency. Without potable water, sanitation is also a concern.
“The County continues to review the feasibility of permitting those affected residents who do not live on the slope to return to their homes,” a government statement said. “Until we know the answers to these safety questions, we cannot permit these residents to return to their homes.”
Earlier this month, the earth slipped down a hillside, cracking the road, sending trees tumbling, and rupturing water and sewer lines.
County workers patched the road so construction vehicles could lumber across, and the WSSC set up water valves for firetrucks in case of an emergency. But no water or sewer service was available to the houses.
“The bottom line is, the only thing keeping us from our homes is the lack of utilities,” said resident Madeline LaSalle.
With each week, doubts multiplied and confidence deflated.
Sue Howland and her husband, Kenneth Archer, said they cannot wait any longer for answers. They are looking to buy a new home instead of staying at a hotel, which won’t accommodate all of their 20 cats.
“Day after day after day, we are not just in limbo — we are bleeding money,” Howland said.
Kutzleb tried to stay positive at first, praising the county’s early response to the crisis. But she said her jaw dropped last week when Darrell Mobley, director of the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation, said it would be “months, not weeks” before residents could go home.
“That’s unacceptable,” Kutzleb said. “If something is not done, we will do it ourselves.”
Mobley told residents that the government is analyzing the three stabilization options proposed by the engineering firm KCI Technologies, which was commissioned to do a report on the site and released one last week. He did not say when the county will choose an option, when work will begin and whether there is a long-term housing plan for displaced residents. The report concludes that heavy rains, combined with large deposits of slippery Marlboro clay in the soil, led to the slope failure.
“Everybody wants the government to do it all, but we can’t do it all,” Majett said, adding that Social Services is working with families to find housing through funds donated by the Peterson Family Foundation. “We don’t have the funding, and that is just not how it works. I think we’ve done a lot.”
Repairs to the slope, which is on private land, could be too expensive for the county to take on, Majett added. He argued that the government has gone “beyond the call of duty” and said residents’ demands might not be realistic.
Still, many residents are not satisfied.
“The county is dragging” its feet, said Dave Lishin, president of the Piscataway Hills Citizens Association. Residents, he added, “haven’t been given clear information as to why certain things cannot happen.”
The citizens group has mobilized homeowners to meet regularly and stay in touch through e-mail to advocate on each other’s behalf. Residents have hired their own engineering firm, consulted with lawyers and are writing letters to elected officials, including Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).
State Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s) is trying to act as a mediator between the increasingly frustrated residents and government officials.
“My only concern is that they get their water on and get back into their homes,” Muse said. “I’m not interested in assigning fault, but we should be doing everything we can financially or otherwise to look for ways to help them.”
Evelyn Gardner, 58, said she has led a quiet life for 16 years in her secluded home — the last property before the end of Piscataway Drive, far from the landslide. She and her husband plan to join their neighbors in defying evacuation orders.
“I just want to be back home,” the homemaker said.