Archive for the ‘Disasters’ Category

Fund Created to Help Hyattsville Family Displaced by Fire Reaches $55,000

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

A fund created to help a Hyattsville family devastated by a fire in January has climbed to $55,000, said creator Stuart Eisenberg.

In the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 19, the Hyattsville house where the Zelaya Hernandez family lived caught fire. Of the seven members of their extended family in the house that night, only five escaped. Nine-year-old Kimberly Hernandez and her sister, 13-year-old Kelly Hernandez, died as a result of the blaze.

The fire destroyed the house where the family had been living for the past four years, creating an estimated $350,000 in damage to the home’s structure and content, according to fire officials.

Eisenberg, 47, a close neighbor of the Hernandezes and a former president of the Hyattsville City Council, set up the relief fund for the family shortly after the fire.

He said the money raised by the fund helped replace the family’s car, which was damaged by the blaze. The money was also used to help the Hernandezes with their rent, to pay for funeral expenses and to buy household items, clothing and new mattresses.

The family “had to put together a full household again,” said Eisenberg, adding there was nothing to recover from the house after the fire.

Eisenberg, the executive director of the nonprofit Hyattsville Community Development Corp., said monetary donations for the family are still being accepted, but not goods.

He said funds are being used to address the family’s needs as they come up.

The Rev. Vidal Rivas, 46, head of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Hyattsville, said the family is recovering and now lives in Langley Park. He has been giving the spiritual support, he said, and sees them often in church.

“They are doing very well,” he said.

By Maryland Newsline’s Maite Fernandez

Previous story: Hyattsville Community Comes Together to Help Family Ripped Apart by Fire

Church Damaged by Pipe Break Moves to Suitland

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011
(Photo by Maryland Newsline's Alexanda Wilding)

Property at the Capitol Heights church was damaged in January by the water main break. (Photo by Maryland Newsline's Alexanda Wilding)

A Capitol Heights church that was extensively damaged earlier this year by a 54-inch water main break has temporarily relocated to a new location in Suitland, where it shares a space with New Birth Christian Church.

Pastor Stephanie Stratford of the Ekklesia Family Life and Worship Center said the church ended its lease at the previous location and has been worshiping in the new location since early February. The church is looking for a permanent home and is in the process of gathering funds to eventually relocate, Stratford said.

“I am very hopeful that someone who owns property suitable for the church would consider donating it to the church because of our tragedy with our building,” Stratford said. “Even if it needs fixing up, we’d be willing to do that.”

She said she hopes the church can remain in the Capitol Heights, Forestville, District Heights or Suitland areas.

The Christian community and political leaders have been helpful in the recovery process, and the church has received some “considerably generous” donations, Stratford said.

In late January, 50 million gallons of water burst from a broken water main in Capitol Heights after reinforcing wires in the main snapped. Water rushed into the office park housing the church and onto the nearby inner loop of the Capital Beltway.

About 400,000 Prince George’s County customers of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission lost water pressure due to the burst main, and they were under a boil water advisory for four days.

The inspection of the broken main has been completed, but it will need additional repairs and is not in service at this time, said WSSC spokesman I.J. Hudson. It will cost about $480,000 to repair the main and restore the parking lot that surrounds it, he added.

WSSC is installing an acoustic fiber optics system on the larger and older mains as preventative measures to prevent further incidents. The system is expected to be installed in all the larger mains by 2013, Hudson said.

Following the water main break, the church settled with WSSC for damages to its property in an amount that Stratford didn’t wish to disclose, but said was “fair.”

The insurance company representing the owner of the damaged building – The Korth Companies Inc. of Gaithersburg, Md. – is handling financial discussions with WSSC, said company Vice President Terry Korth.

Stratford said she likes the church’s current location, on Meadowview Drive in Suitland. “It’s in the heart of the community, and our mission is directed toward the community,” she said of her following, which includes about 60 families. Members worship there at 7:30 a.m. on Sundays and hold a Bible study at the same location on Thursday evenings at 7 p.m.

In the days that followed the water main break, church members worshiped at Galilee Baptist Church in Suitland and Brown Memorial AME Church in Washington.

Donations to the church can be sent to P.O. Box 1479 Suitland, Md., 20752.

–By Maryland Newsline’s Alexandra Wilding

Previous Story: Water Main Break Gives Church Hope

UMD panel: U.S. Safe from Fukushima Fallout

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

A panel of University of Maryland nuclear experts said the United States is safe from radiation leaking out of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, but disagreed on what the disaster would mean to the environment surrounding the facility.

Jeff Stehr, an atmospheric and oceanic sciences researcher, has helped form projections of the path of the plume of radioactive particles coming from the plant, which was damaged by a 9.0 earthquake and the resulting tsunami on March 11. He said Alaska’s Aleutian Islands might see slightly higher levels of radiation than normal, but in the continental U.S. even the West Coast was at very little risk.

“We’re not really looking at a big deal for us,” Stehr said. “We’re very, very far away.”

The discussion came on the heels of news of high levels of radiation in the seawater around the damaged Fukushima plant. Mohamad Al-Sheikhly, an engineering professor, said that was not cause for panic because the vastness of the Pacific Ocean would dilute radiation and the Japanese have method for retrieving uranium from water.

But Donald Milton, a professor at the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health, warned of “bio-concentration.” He said some radioactive elements, like Cesium, tend to concentrate in water and move up the food chain rather than dissipating.

“What’s going to be really important is the monitoring of fish and mollusks,” Milton said.

The panel was moderated by Carol Rogers, professor of journalism, and also included Bill Dorland, professor of physics, Nate Hultman, professor of public policy, and John Steinbruner, professor of public policy.

The panel agreed that the U.S. nuclear community could learn from the Fukushima crisis.

Dorland said that Tepco, which operated the Fukushima plant, was warned years earlier that the area around the plant had a history of tsunamis. He said the plant had been built to withstand a tsunami of 6.5 meters but the one that took out its backup power March 11 reached 14 meters.

Maryland’s only nuclear power plant, Calvert Cliffs, is likely safe from earthquakes and tsunamis. The U.S. Geological survey reports that there has never been an earthquake centered in Washington, D.C., in recorded history.

But more mundane weather conditions have caused problems at Calvert Cliffs. Last year, the plant’s general manager, Thomas Trepanier, warned employees about declining maintenance after melting snow leaked through the roof and shorted out one of the reactor’s electrical distribution boxes. One of the plant’s five backup generators then failed, causing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to issue a rare “white” finding.

Dorland said he was unfamiliar with the incident, but that any reactor should be built so that both the primary and secondary power  sources for cooling could not be knocked out by the same event.

“If snow is an issue there, and both the primary and secondary power are vulnerable to snow, then that’s a design flaw,” he said.

Hultman said the incident in Japan would likely affect U.S. nuclear policy and regulation and noted that Germany had shut down several of its older nuclear plants in light of the crisis.

Steinbruner said that all nuclear plants could be made safer than they are now by sacrificing some efficiency, but it would require an “entirely different configuration of the industry.”

New, safer reactor designs are on the way, Al-Sheikhly said, including a Westinghouse AP 1000 model with a passive safety system that eliminates the possibility of a meltdown due to operator error. He also touted advanced gas-cooled reactors that are smaller and safer, relying on liquid helium for cooling, rather than water.

But Dorland noted that many of the problems at Fukushima came not from the reactors themselves, but from spent nuclear fuel sitting outside the containment units in cooling ponds. That led Milton to note that the U.S. had not found any viable solutions for storing nuclear waste in the long term, despite setting aside $24 billion to build a permanent facility.

“Even if we come up with reactors that are inherently safe, can we deal with the waste they produce?” Milton asked.

By Capital News Service’s Andy Marso

Water Main Break Gives Church Hope

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011
Pastor Stephanie Stratford (Photo by Maryland Newsline's Alexandra Wilding)

Pastor Stephanie Stratford (Photo by Maryland Newsline's Alexandra Wilding)

CAPITOL HEIGHTS, Md. – At 8 a.m. Monday, Pastor Stephanie Stratford of the Ekklesia Family Life and Worship Center got a call from her leasing office urging her to come to the church right away. 

“I didn’t have any idea it was complete and total devastation until I got here,” said Stratford, as she walked through what remained of the church she established and has led since 2007.

In what was once her office, decorated with a sofa and various knickknacks, there is now only mud, dehumidifiers to prevent mold, and remnants of walls that were ripped apart by the force of rushing water.

The water, about 50 million gallons of it, gushed around 3:30 a.m. that morning from a broken water main after reinforcing wires snapped. It rushed into the office park housing the church and onto the nearby inner loop of the Capital Beltway, causing about 400,000 Prince George’s County customers of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission to lose water pressure and to be advised to boil their water for drinking, making ice, brushing teeth and food preparation.

With low water pressure, there is an increased risk of contamination.

The exact cause of the water main break is still being determined, but the main’s reinforcing wires appear to have been invaded by corrosion, said I.J. Hudson, a spokesman for the WSSC. The 54-inch main is 40 years old.

The boil-water advisory is still in effect for customers in the area south of Central Avenue and Route 202. The WSSC plans to make an announcement about the advisory sometime Thursday, Hudson said.

On Tuesday, crews contracted by the WSSC cleaned up the area surrounding the broken pipe, piling up chairs and other debris that floated out of the Ekklesia Family Life and Worship Center when their glass windows shattered under the water’s pressure.

In terms of property damage, this was a bad incident, said WSSC customer advocate Kevin Woolbright. As the rushing water snaked through the church, it displaced furniture, shattered windows and tore down walls.

The church, which serves 60 families with Sunday services and Thursday evening Bible study, will not be torn down, but the inside of the building including walls, windows and carpeting will have to be replaced, a process that could take four to six weeks, Stratford said.

The cost of the repairs will be covered by the WSSC, officials said.

Robert Jennings, a youth minister with the church and Stratford’s son, expressed optimism about the church’s future, despite the damage to the building. “We are excited about where God is taking us,” he said. “It’s a great loss, but it’s not a setback.”

This Sunday, Stratford, joined by members of her congregation, will preach at both Galilee Baptist Church in Suitland and Brown Memorial AME Church in Washington.

Despite the damage to her church, Stratford spoke calmly and with a smile about the future.

“I’m excited because I know that what I lost is going to be nothing compared to what I receive in return,” she said.  “So, I think that this is also a defining moment in the life of our church and in the development of the faith of our congregation.”

For more information on the water advisory and to find affected areas, visit

More photos in Newsline slide show.

–By Maryland Newsline’s Alexandra Wilding