Antique Water Main Breaks, Floods Basements, Slows Morning Train

January 15, 2014 Updated: January 16, 2014

NEW YORK—An early morning water main break Wednesday in the city’s oldest water system near Union Square caused what area residents described as a “river of knee-high water” that flowed down 13th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues for almost five hours. A massive sinkhole, numerous flooded basements, and morning rush hour subway train delays ensued.

“The water was up to the third rail in the transit system by 1:25 a.m.,” said Brian Norton, spokesman for the New York Fire Department. By sunrise, five commercial buildings were without access to water, but many more basements were flooded.

The broken main is a 36-inch cast iron pipe that dates back to 1877. It burst in the middle of one the busiest parts of Manhattan at the center of the intersection of 13th Street and Fifth Avenue. It collapsed because of pressure, according to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

After the flooding subsided, the intersection and branching streets in every direction became a hodgepodge.

Crisscrossing hoses pumped out water from flooded basements, fire hydrants flowed water to alleviate water pressure, emergency response trucks parked haphazardly, chunks of broken asphalt defied gravity, bewildered residents stood gaping, and more than seven dozen workers from DEP, Con Edison, Verizon, and private subsurface contractors were on the scene.

There are only about 100 water mains in the city that are 36 inches in diameter; most of the city’s water mains are 8 inches in diameter. They are buried among the delicate spaghetti of pipes and cables transporting gas, electricity, and more.

Taking on Water

Some in the area said they thought more quickly on their feet about how to minimize water damage after experiencing Superstorm Sandy.

Just an hour after the flooding began, Dino Velaj, superintendent at 13 West 13 St., frantically set up a makeshift flood wall of loose bricks to keep water from flowing into the residential building’s lobby. It worked. But he was not in time to save the basement, including his office, which took on 5 feet of water. It was stocked with flood preparedness tools, including flashlights and masks.

“All that preparation [I learned] from Sandy,” Velaj lamented as he stood outside his building Wednesday afternoon. “I would have been more prepared, but my shop is underwater.”

Other nearby buildings were hit particularly hard, including two parking garages on the west end of 13th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues. A number of cars were underwater, and maintenance workers struggled with the magnitude of water that required pumping.

The basement at Parsons The New School for Design on 2 W. 13 St. was flooded with about 4 feet of murky water. Students’ lockers, computers, ceramics tools, and other design equipment were destroyed, according to building employees who asked not to be identified.

Sam Foley, operations manager from New York City Water Works, and member of the Subsurface Plumbers Association of New York City, who was working on excavating the site, said that such ancient pipes are the primary catalyst for water main breaks.

“Unfortunately there are still some pipes that are very old,” he said. “Over 100 years old is asking for more than their life expectancy. [The city] needs to roll out some funds to replace those mains.”

Also on Wednesday, around noon, another old cast iron water main at 14th Street and Ninth Avenue sprung a leak, according to Foley.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg invested $123 billion in infrastructure during his term, according to a December Citizens Budget Commission report. De Blasio’s office did not comment Wednesday on how it will budget for infrastructure spending.

The pipe is part of the Croton Water System, located East of the Hudson River, and is the oldest system providing drinking water to the city and upstate communities.

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