The Baltimore plumber who saved Christmas

Published on: December 27, 2022 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: December 27, 2022 6:08 PM EST

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The water started rushing into the basement of the Northeast Baltimore home just before nightfall on the coldest Christmas Eve in 40 years.

Inside, two mothers, three adult children and one 5-year-old boy panicked as their home flooded. All are asylum-seekers from Honduras in search of a better life in the U.S.; none speak English. They are temporary residents of a home owned by Asylee Women Enterprise, an organization that helps immigrants rebuild their lives in Baltimore.

With much of the organization’s staff out of town for the holiday, the group called 911, which used an interpreter to send fire department crews to shut off the water. A social worker began searching for a plumber to fix the pipes, which were frozen over due to the plunging temperatures. The calls for help went unanswered.

Word of the families’ plight eventually reached Danni Donovan, who, along with her wife, owns Donovan WaterWorks, a full-service residential plumbing company that services the Baltimore region. She raced to the scene around 4 p.m. and spent Holy Night fixing the burst pipes. She returned home to her family just after midnight.

“It was a household with women and children, their first Christmas they’re experiencing without extreme oppression; they should be able to have running water,” said Donovan, who picked up the trade as a teenager and co-founded the company in 2020. “The plumbing in Maryland isn’t meant to handle temperatures that low.”

Laura Brown, executive director of Asylee Women Enterprise, said the organization’s go-to plumbing service had closed for the holiday, sending the leadership team into a scramble for another professional. The household members had never experienced a winter abroad, Brown said. They sent her a video of the damage.

“The video I saw was horrible,” said Brown. “Finally ... Danni responded. And I don’t think she had a lot of other information. Everything is stable now for the next few weeks.”

Plumbing, Donovan acknowledged, requires skill, long hours and a willingness to dive deep into the messy quarters of homes and houses that others might be reluctant to touch. As unglamorous — and thankless — as it may be, it is an essential service but a slower-growing industry, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Increasingly cold temperatures may only increase demand for the work.

Temperatures dipped to a low of 6 degrees Saturday morning, with a wind chill as low as 2, according to the National Weather Service. Temperatures haven’t dropped that low over Christmas weekend since 1983, and the extreme cold already beat last season’s record, National Weather Service meteorologist Luis Rosa said.

With the cold comes risk of disaster, ranging from dangerously low body temperatures to exposure-related injuries, such as frostbite. It also puts residents at risk of water emergencies as pipes and other pieces of old, urban infrastructure freeze.

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Donovan said she typically fields a few calls a week for emergencies; since Friday, she has received at least 40 urgent calls. She has been able to respond to about one-fifth of them, on top of other already scheduled appointments.

“There’s a shortage of plumbers in the world, and it’s going to get harder and harder to get people to come to your house if more people don’t pick up the trade.”

As a queer woman plumber in an industry typically dominated by men, Donovan said she sometimes has to work extra hard to earn clients’ trust. “That’s what you get when you have women taking over a men’s world.”

The Christmas Eve call saw multiple leaks that Donovan patched and repaired. She used Google Translate to communicate with the families, who offered her festive food and drink as a token of their gratitude, including a box of Little Debbie Snack Cakes.

“Most people take their systems for granted,” Donovan said. “We try to help our community as best we can.”

Tips from a plumber

To avoid catastrophe as temperatures continue to dip, Donovan recommends taking the following steps:

  • Turn on the heat as high as you can stand, or afford, to: The pipes won’t freeze in heated areas.
  • Make use of space heaters in areas likely to freeze, such as spaces with plumbing lines that share walls with home exteriors.
  • Ensure the home is properly insulated, which lowers resistance to heat flow.
  • Keep a faucet dripping, if possible, to prevent pipes from freezing and bursting.
  • Open cabinet doors for plumbing lines that come through kitchens and bathrooms so heat can reach the pipes.
  • Locate your emergency shut-off valve and learn how to use it for water-related emergencies; otherwise, be prepared to call 311.
  • Use a hairdryer to warm frozen pipes if you can reach them.
  • Invest in heat tape to keep pipes warm during the winter months.
  • Have basic tools on hand — such as screwdrivers and Channellock pliers — to use in emergencies.
  • Consider booking an annual inspection with a plumber to detect problems early.