Philadelphia moves to settle up over losses from water main breaks

 Multiple cars in the Bakers Centre parking lot were partially submerged following the  June 18 water main break in East Falls. (Bastiaan Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

Multiple cars in the Bakers Centre parking lot were partially submerged following the June 18 water main break in East Falls. (Bastiaan Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

Brandy Young knows a little something about loss prevention. At the Ross Dress for Less in East Falls, it’s her job to thwart would-be shoplifters.

But last Thursday, there was nothing Young could do to stop her car from becoming engulfed as 7 million gallons of water gushed from a broken 48-inch transmission main beneath the Bakers Centre parking lot.

“I saw little bubbles. Less than five minutes later, the whole lot was flooded,” she said. “By the time I got to my car, there was already water up to the seats.”

Young’s Ford Taurus is now sitting in a tow yard. It’s unclear if she’ll ever drive it again. And so, for the time being, she’s relying on SEPTA for transportation.

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That’s made life pretty hectic. Young has to take two, sometimes three, buses to get to Ross. What’s more, she has three young kids who need to be dropped off and picked up at day care.

“There’s been times when I’ve been crying,” said Young.

Help could soon be on the way, though. Since the 120-year-old main is city property, Philadelphia will help cover some of the damages as long as a resident or contractor didn’t cause the break.

City’s paid out millions to cover damage claims

Over the years, that fact has meant that millions of taxpayer dollars have been used to settle damage claims.

If, like Young, you have insurance, the city typically reimburses you for your deductible. You don’t have to have insurance, however, to file a claim or collect a check from the city.

“If you don’t have any insurance, then the city would be liable for the value of the loss. If you do have insurance, that would come first,” said Barry Scott, the city’s risk manager.

After a water main break occurs, claim adjusters inspect the damages and the claimant gets an estimate. The two sides then work together and settle on an amount, almost always without a court battle.

“It’s very much the exception rather than the rule,” said Scott.

If a settlement is $4,000 or less, payment can take just a few weeks. The city’s risk management office can cut a check directly.

Larger claims take longer, sometimes six months or more as they have to go through the city’s voucher process.

By law, there’s a $500,000 liability cap per water main break – no matter how many homes and businesses are damaged.

As of Monday, Philadelphia had paid out $298,104 in water break claims for the fiscal year that’s about to end.

That figure doesn’t include all of the claims connected to the break at Bakers Centre or those flooded by a different break under the 500 block of North 52nd Street in West Philadelphia less than a week earlier.

Since 2010,  settlements total $2.1 million.

The Philadelphia Water Department budgets to replace 1 percent of its underground infrastructure each year.

At that rate, it’ll take 100 years before all distribution mains are replaced. Most of the city’s pipes are at least that old already.

950 water main breaks since July 1

As of Monday, the city has had approximately 950 water main breaks this fiscal year, toward the higher end of the spectrum over the past five years.

“We will continue to work to replace our underground infrastructure as quickly as we can,” said  John DiGiulio, a spokesman for the water department.

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