The technicians fixed the valve Tuesday evening, but utility officials continued to urge residents to stock up on water amid warnings that their taps would soon run dry.
Then late Wednesday morning, the WSSC announced that the water disaster predicted for southern Prince George’s County wouldn’t occur after all. With the valve fix, the 54-inch water main that officials said had been on the verge of exploding could be shut down for repairs while water continued to flow.
“I’m sure people are frustrated, but I think they’d be even more frustrated if we had a catastrophic failure and suddenly — boom! — they had no water,” WSSC General Manager Jerry N. Johnson said.
Amid the warnings that people could be without water for five days, a fever took hold.
Bottled water was stripped from the shelves; people filled trash cans and bathtubs with water to flush toilets; firefighters and medical personnel activated contingency plans; and the regional planning organization began coordinating support from other counties and other states.
National Harbor, the sprawling shopping and entertainment complex on the Potomac River, was shut down. Hotel guests checked out prematurely, and restaurants closed abruptly.
As the two utility workers — Brad Destelhorst and Tom Ecker — worked on the valve, four feet below ground, near where Pennsylvania Avenue crosses the Capital Beltway, WSSC officials had little hope that the two men could head off the water emergency.
“No one thought these guys were going to pull this off,” said WSSC spokeswoman Kira Calm Lewis. “It was literally extraordinary. What if they tried and it hadn’t worked? We’d be in the same situation but wouldn’t have told people they would have no water. Unfortunately, we had to prepare people for the situation we thought we could be in, not the situation that we hoped we’d be in.”
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) at a news conference late Wednesday hinted at his displeasure.
“When did they first know about this other option, and how soon were they able to tell us other than this morning?” asked Baker, who allowed that he still would have urged people to prepare for the worst. “We are going to ask some very tough questions. We are going to have a very long and lengthy discussion about how we can make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
The WSSC system, which serves 1.8 million people in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, maintains a system with 72,000 valves and 5,600 miles of water lines.
George S. Hawkins, general manager of neighboring DC Water, said utilities constantly struggle to maintain thousands of valves that often get little regular use but are critical in emergencies.