Damages from water-main break expected to exceed $500,000 liability limit

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Flooding at 10th and Walnut streets after a water main break has flooded several Center City streets. (Trenae Nuri/WHYY)

Flooding at 10th and Walnut streets after a water main break has flooded several Center City streets. (Trenae Nuri/WHYY)

This story originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

Since a massive water-main break flooded the streets of Midtown Village Tuesday morning, Kate Moroney Miller has had one really bad Time.

Time is the name of one of the Sansom Street bars that was inundated. Moroney Miller is director of operations for the Vintage Syndicate, which runs Time, Bar, Vintage Wine Bar, Tiki, and the Garage.

Bar and Time were both flooded. Time’s basement filled with about five feet of water, Moroney Miller said.

“It’s pretty devastating. The beating heart of the business is the basement. It’s where all of the refrigeration units are, it’s where the compressors for air-conditioning units are, the beer system, [the] soda system — not to mention all of the product —  is in the basement.”

Though Bar was expected to reopen Thursday night, Time is going to take a lot more time.

“It won’t be until Monday or Tuesday that we’ll have a firm grasp on everything,” said Moroney Miller. “Really, our biggest concern right now is our staff of about 30 people. Our employees are out of a job right now.”

Next door at Opa, a crew from Royal Water Damage was continuing to clean up that bar’s basement. On the first floor, a half-dozen fans whirred loudly in an attempt to blow away some of the moisture as Royal sales manager Tim Lennen did some paperwork at the bar.

His team cleared out 2 ½ feet of mud and chicken grease the day before, Lennen said. The work isn’t easy.

“It’s really hot. The moisture levels are really high, the heat is very high, the temperatures are very high, and everything is peeling off the walls,” he said. “Of course, all the walls are damaged, slippery floors, and it smells pretty bad, too.”

Lennen declined to say how much companies like his charge, but he admitted that it wasn’t cheap.

“It’s expensive. We’re talking thousands and thousands of dollars,” he said. “Sewage is money.”

Back over at Time, Moroney Miller said she expects a big price tag. “Loss of business aside, just in terms of damages at Time, you’re well beyond six figures, for sure.”

While the Philadelphia Water Department will pay claims related to the break in the main, those claims are capped by statute at $500,000 total. The total damages will likely far exceed that: A water-main break at Bainbridge and 21st streets in 2012 flooded 21 homes, leading to $1.3 million in claims. Water Department Commissioner Debra McCarty estimated that 30 to 40 businesses would end up filing claims related to Tuesday’s pipe burst.

A legislative effort to raise the statutory cap in 2013 went nowhere in Harrisburg, dying in committee. If the claims from Tuesday’s water-main break end up exceeding the $500,000 limit, residents and business owners will likely end up in Common Pleas Court to figure out how to divvy up the money. Victims can also expect fights with their insurance companies over coverage of the remaining damages.

When asked how Vintage Syndicate will cover the rehab costs, Moroney Miller laughed. “That is still to be assessed. We are waiting for Philadelphia Water Department adjusters to come through, we’re waiting for our own insurance company adjusters to come through,” she said. “This is a slow process unfortunately.”

The 48-inch water main burst about 4 a.m. Tuesday, sending an estimated 15 million gallons into the streets and leaving a massive crater at the intersection of Sansom and Juniper streets.  Water service has been restored to all the affected buildings but one — the unoccupied Hale Building, which has been under restoration since early 2017.

While 13th Street was expected to reopen Thursday, work at the intersection of Sansom and Juniper will likely take many months, said McCarty. “It’s a complicated intersection with a lot of utilities, so we have to be cautious on how we do it.”

The cast-iron water main dates back to 1927, said McCarty. The city’s 3,200 miles of water pipes are, on average, about 70 years old. The Water Department is currently trying to replace about 42 miles per year.

There were close to 1,000 water-main breaks in the fiscal year ending March 31, said McCarty, with nearly 600 this winter.

Just a half-block away, life has largely returned to normal. At the corner of Sansom and 13th streets, El Vez was able to open Wednesday and business has been good since, said manager Nicole Bell, despite a foot of water on the first floor.

Across the street, Zavino remained closed Thursday afternoon, and employees there were uncertain whether they’d be able to reopen before the weekend.

Though Time will remain closed indefinitely, two of Vintage Syndicate’s other Midtown Village bars, Tiki and Vintage Wine Bar, were able to reopen Tuesday. Moroney Miller said she hopes customers will come back, despite the still-messy streets.

“My biggest encouragement to the community at large is to come to Midtown Village, come support the businesses that are open, whether they’re ours or other businesses in the neighborhood,” she said.

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