OXON HILL, Md. — Water officials in Maryland knew that they may have averted a crisis that threatened to leave hundreds of thousands of people without water for days, but they kept mum for hours to ensure their fix worked.
Water officials at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission said they kept silent about efforts to fix a stuck valve they knew could divert water to the affected area and avoid the crisis because they thought it was unlikely to work.
The fix announced Wednesday around noon means that approximately 200,000 residents and businesses in southern Prince George's County are under mandatory water restrictions while repairs to a major water main take place, but the area won't run out of water as previously announced.
Spokesman I.J. Hudson told radio station WMAL that he believes crews closed the valve at about 6:40 p.m. Tuesday, approximately 17 hours before the fix was announced to the public. Hudson says officials weren't sure the repaired valve would hold and were afraid sharing the good news would keep residents from taking the crisis seriously and conserving water as they were told to.
Officials put areas of southern Prince George's County under water restrictions beginning 9 p.m. Tuesday. Residents were told to postpone using dishwashers and washing machines, to limit flushing toilets and to take short showers. They were also told the water would eventually run out during repairs on the pipe and to expect the outage to last days.
WSSC spokesman Jerry Irvine said Thursday that repair crews were able to pull "something off that no one thought was possible" when they were able to divert water to the affected area.
Irvine said officials had to proceed with the high probability that the fix wouldn't work and that no one thought the water diversion "was going to be a viable option." Irvine said that's why county officials weren't told.
"There was still a lot of uncertainty that that fix was going to be viable," Irvine said of workers' ability to close the valve.
Repairs, meanwhile, were on schedule Thursday. Officials said they have now removed the failing section of 4 1/2-foot pipe and installed a new one. Once the repairs are complete, workers will have to perform water quality tests before returning the pipe to service.
Other businesses in the county, meanwhile, were returning to normal operations while working under water restrictions. Joint Base Andrews, the home to Air Force One, which had moved to essential operations only on Wednesday in anticipation of the water crisis was back to normal. And the hotel at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at National Harbor, which had closed on Wednesday, was also open Thursday.