Center City water main break leaves behind a muddy mess

Surrounding businesses are now dealing with the aftermath of flood damage.

Tim Jimenez
July 03, 2018 - 6:16 am
A muddy mess left behind at the site of a water mean break in Center City Philadelphia.

Tim Jimenez/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A big cleanup is underway in Center City Philadelphia after a water main burst early Tuesday morning and turned Walnut Street east of Broad Street into a river. The breakage caused the streets to flood. And after crews contained the problem and waters receded, a muddy mess was left behind.

Rob, who lives in Center City, could not believe what he was seeing.

"Yeah, it's like Class 2 rapids right now down Walnut Street," he said.

Jason, who works at the Rodeway Inn at 12th and Walnut, was shocked at what he saw.

"Yeah, it's coming up to the sidewalks," he said. "I don't even know how deep that is, but it's crazy."

The Philadelphia Water Department reports that 14 to 15 million gallons of water was lost after a 48-inch cast-iron transmission main  laid down back in 1927  broke at Sansom and Juniper Streets some time between 3:30 a.m. and 4 a.m.

Early in the morning, the submerged roadways blocked traffic and detoured buses. After the water was shut off, the cleanup effort kept some streets closed off. SEPTA bus routes 9, 12, 21, 38, 42 and 45 are detoured. Some of the routes were already dealing with detours due to construction or various holiday-related activities. 

The break had an impact on operations at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. Some elective surgeries have been rescheduled, and others are being transferred to operating rooms at other Jefferson locations in Center City. A spokeswoman says water pressure was lost for a time, but has been restored. 

"Sometimes, in the summer and hot months, high volume of water usage can contribute to something like this," said Water Department spokesman John DiGiulio.

But the exact cause isn't known. DiGiulio says residents from Center City to South Philly lost water service or had low-pressure. 

It took a few hours after the break for crews to stop the water gushing into the streets. And when the water stopped flowing, the damage it caused was visible: a lot of mud in the streets and several business owners arriving to find their basements flooded. Many of the businesses on Walnut Street sent their workers home for the day.

Philadelphia Water Department crews will be on the job through the holiday to continue clean-up operations. City Water Commissioner Debra McCarty said it will be some time before they determine what caused the main break.

As efforts to replace the damaged main continue, McCarty conceded it will not be an easy job.

"A complicated intersection like this, it's got a lot of utilities, it's got PECO, Verizon, Veolia, PGW. And we're going to have to be really cautious how we dig and not adversely impact any of those utilities," she said. It's too early to provide a timetable for repairs.

Meanwhile, she said a separate 8-inch main in the area also failed, disrupting water service to 10 large customers — mostly businesses.

McCarty added that anyone connected between Sansom and Walnut streets on Juniper Street will be out of water, as well as anyone between 13th and Juniper streets.

Thomas Hartshorn of Barbuzzo, located at 13th and Sansom streets, rushed to the restaurant after hearing about the water main break. He rode the subway to the scene.

"From Broad Street it was just like an inch of mud on all the sidewalks and it was pretty much just like a river running down Sansom Street," he said. "You could see it going in the basements over here at Time and Savino, all the way down Sansom Street."

Hartshorn was mostly concerned about Barbuzzo's basement.

"Luckily, we were unaffected," he said. "But I heard that El Vez and Time got it pretty bad."

Christopher Mullins of McGillin's Olde Ale House said he woke up to a text alerting him about the water main break.

He got to the neighborhood quickly, saw the flooding and the mud, but was shocked to find McGillin's was spared.

"I got to Drury Street and I looked up and I saw the water had just stopped an inch of the curb. I mean, one more inch of water and we would have been flooded. I'm not exaggerating, one more inch of water. So it was really, really, really frightening," he recalled.

Mullins said he and others who escaped damage plan to reach out to their neighbors who were affected.

"We're a pretty tight-knit group of restaurateurs here and retailers," he added. "I'm sure we'll all get through it together."

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KYW Newsradio's Lynne Adkins and Mark Abrams contributed to this report.