Raising their house keys in the air, about a dozen Prince George’s County families marched past barricades in their neighborhood to return home for good in a show of resistance against an evacuation order levied a month ago after a landslide destabilized the road.
The Fort Washington residents organized the demonstration to pressure the county government to relax sanctions against them staying in their homes while officials come up with a plan to shore up a slippery hillside that damaged Piscataway Drive and ruptured water and sewer lines.
Late Thursday, Prince George's County notified the Piscataway Hills residents that they could contact the water utility to restore service but that they would do so at their own risk. Hours before the protest, officials cautioned homeowners that the road would be closed to cars and foot traffic.
But no one stopped them.
Maureen and Brad Bartee walked their three boys — Colin, Brendan and Ryan — down the road, holding signs reading, “We are going home,” as news cameras captured their return.
Their home was not directly affected by the sliding land, but they — along with 27 other families — were ordered to leave because Prince George’s County said the residence was unfit for habitation.
But the Bartees and others say they are staying in their homes for now.
Tracy Rookard is not as fortunate as her neighbors. Her house sits on the failing slope and was deemed “unsafe.” She can’t go home, but she came Friday to support her neighbors, punching her fist in the air as they walked deep into the wooded enclave.
“If we hadn’t made noise, nothing would have happened,” she said, walking past utility workers installing above-ground piping for water and sewer service — an action Piscataway Hills neighbors fought for as a short-term solution to their prolonged homelessness.
For weeks, the Piscataway Hills neighbors were living in hotels or relying on the hospitality of others, but their patience wore thin and bank accounts were being depleting.
Together, they decided to ignore the warnings and pledged to take care of one another if Prince George’s would work with the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission to turn on the water.
“The County still deems the area unsafe for residents as the slope continues to shift and move,” officials said. “The County strongly encourages all residents to continue with their alternative living arrangements.”
Madeline LaSalle and her husband, Robert Reilly, nevertheless drove down Piscataway Drive with their belongings and were planning to drive back up to go grocery shopping.
“We’re very impressed they finally learned how to lay down pipe,” Reilly said. The county “has done a lot of good work,” he said, “but they were holding out on us with the water.”
Many residents rejected the conclusions of a geotechnical engineering report commissioned by Prince George’s that blamed the slide on torrential rain and slippery clay. The pressure from the ground cracked the main road and caused lines to burst, the report, released last week, said.
Prince George’s officials ordered the evacuation of the 22 homes below the ruptured roadway May 5, along with six others located higher up.
Gwynn Roberson, the past president of the Piscataway Hills citizens association, said the road has been cracking for years, and that she believed the excess moisture from years of broken water mains caused the hillside to give way.
Residents continue to blame poor road maintenance and storm-water drainage for the catastrophe. Initially, a few families were reluctant to leave.
The firm KCI Technologies proposed three options to stabilize the ground, and Prince George’s officials are evaluating the feasibility and cost of the project. It could be months before work begins.
County and utility workers installed a temporary water main for fire protection and plastic drainage pipes to divert rain runoff, and they patched the road for construction vehicles.
Gary Cunningham, deputy director of Prince George’s Department of Permitting, Inspection and Enforcement, said thus far, no structural damage has been found at any of the homes. “We’ve been inspecting those buildings after every rainfall and twice a week, regardless of the weather,” he said. “At this point, we do not see any structural damage.”
Residents have had daytime access to their homes but were not permitted to stay overnight.
About a dozen households have asked for water service to be restored, said Lyn Riggins, a spokeswoman for the WSSC. The agency is working to extend the temporary main and use hoses to connect the line to the homes, an operation that could take about four days. The WSSC will flush the line for normal sewer operations and test it regularly to make sure it is clean and reliable.“This is an unprecedented situation,” Riggins said “We are figuring it out as we go, in coordination with the county,” Riggins said.
Once Prince George’s officials are notified that there is water service to a property, Cunningham said, they will reclassify the homes as fit for habitation.
Mike and Debbie Kutzleb didn’t wait. They carried into their house the same basket of clothes they took out four weeks ago when they were ordered to leave.
Debbie Kutzleb tore off the orange evacuation notice on her front door and ripped it into little pieces, declaring, “This will be our first piece of trash.”
“This is the first step in a long process,” she said. “The fight’s not over.”