Kingsessing residents are left without heat or answers after water-main break: ‘They should not be expected to pick up the pieces by themselves’
The break last week of the 48-inch, century-old main flooded the Philadelphia neighborhood with 8 million gallons of water.
With no heat in their Kingsessing apartment, Jideous and Ruth Stewart and their three children have struggled to sleep through the night since a massive water-main break flooded their neighborhood and damaged their home nine days ago.
As the February temperatures outside dipped below freezing, the family of five slept huddled close together, using up to five space heaters to stay warm. But Jideous Stewart can’t sleep comfortably, afraid of the danger of leaving a space heater on for too long.
“I hardly can sleep because I’m up at night to make sure everything is safe,” said Stewart.
Since the 48-inch, century-old water main broke at Springfield Avenue and South 56th Street on Feb. 9 and flooded 8 million gallons into the area, the Stewart family and other residents have lived without heat, water, or electricity.
They’re not alone: At least 13 other homes are without functioning heat, a Philadelphia Gas Works spokesperson said Wednesday, due to flooding and electrical damage to their heating appliances caused by the water-main break.
While natural gas service has been restored to all but two homes on the 1600 block of 56th Street, the occupants of the homes whose heating devices were marred are responsible for making sure their appliances are safe for operation.
After the massive water main broke, the Philadelphia Water Department visited more than 280 properties, pumping 10 basements and sending emergency plumbers and contractors to a handful of homes. The Philadelphia Fire Department rescued at least five residents trapped in their homes by rushing water. Utilities and the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections checked homes for safety. PGW said it has knocked on doors and left information on doorsteps to help restore gas service.
Councilmember Jamie Gauthier visited the neighborhood several times, speaking with affected residents. U.S. Reps. Dwight Evans, who has also been in the neighborhood, and Mary Gay Scanlon have pressed for more aid.
But some residents on 56th Street have complained of little outreach and few answers as to how to get utilities restored, often hamstrung by the damage and inaccessibility to heating and electrical appliances — and left to pay out-of-pocket up front for much of the wreckage.
“The city’s response to this event would be considered inadequate even in a well-resourced neighborhood. But when you’re dealing with a community of working families where many residents live in poverty, in the midst of a catastrophic event they didn’t cause, they should not be expected to pick up the pieces by themselves,” Gauthier said in an emailed statement.
On Monday, Gauthier — noting that an estimated 38.5% of residents near the break live in poverty — sent a letter to Mayor Jim Kenney, asking his administration to double-down on its efforts to visit homes, provide assistance, and ensure residents have places to stay.
“Our most vulnerable residents should not have to shoulder the burden of the long-term failure of all levels of government to adequately fund the maintenance of Philadelphia’s water infrastructure,” she wrote.
A city spokesperson said the administration has been in close contact with Gauthier to address residents’ needs, and the mayor intends to respond to her letter this week. The city is also “now deploying resources and coordinating with partner agencies to address repairs and provide additional support,” the spokesperson said.
Water Department crews continue to work on the site of the break and have excavated a gaping hole in the middle of the intersection. A cause has not been determined, and there is no timeline for repairs to be completed, said Brian Rademaekers, spokesperson for the department.
For residents like Phillip Robinson, getting his home’s heat back was a frustrating process.
When the pipe burst, Robinson was rescued from his first-floor apartment, carried to safety by rescue crews, and left on Chester Avenue, he said. The torrent of water filled his basement, covering everything, including the heating appliances, in thick mud and grime.
For almost a week, Robinson didn’t hear from anyone about when heat would be back, he said. It finally returned Tuesday evening, he said.
The heating appliances are not the property of PGW, the utility’s spokesperson said, and thus PGW does not cover the cost of repair. Residents can file an insurance claim with the city for the cost of repairs, but that process takes months and full coverage of any costs incurred is not guaranteed.
Due to state law, the city’s risk management office allocates no more than $500,000 in compensation per flooding incident — to be divided among all claimants
Like the process of turning heat back on, residents without electrical service are required to go through a tedious process to have their homes checked for safety, as they vie with issues like food spoiling in unusable refrigerators.
Seven electric accounts in three properties lacked service as of Wednesday, a spokesperson for Peco said. The houses were de-energized out of precaution during the flooding.
If a house’s electric meter or circuit distribution panel has been submerged, the customer must have an electrician inspect the wiring and circuitry, the spokesperson said. Then a third-party electrical underwriter inspector has to visit and verify the system’s safety before Peco can restore service.
Amid a scramble for answers, some residents voiced concerns about the nearby PGW construction. A PGW spokesperson said the utility’s work on 56th Street had finished months before the burst. But now, the site will be under construction again, as PGW makes fixes necessitated by the break, the spokesperson said.
Kingsessing is just the latest neighborhood to face disruption from Philadelphia’s aging water infrastructure, where the average main is about 76 years old. The city’s 3,100 miles of water mains suffer about 776 breaks a year — with large bursts like the one on 56th Street occurring once or twice annually, the department has said.
The city is slowly replacing its old pipes, at an average rate of 19 miles of mains per year.
While they’ve been waiting for answers, Jideous and Ruth Stewart have been juggling work, driving their kids to and from school, and constantly buying fresh groceries and takeout until their heat is on and refrigerator is running again. As the days pass, Jideous Stewart, who works as a nurse at St. Francis Center for Rehabilitation & Healthcare in Darby, grows more desperate.
On Tuesday, he shook his head as he carried more of his family’s belongings — salvaged from the flooding in garbage bags — back into their apartment.
“It’s very bad,” he said.