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Massive water-main break floods several blocks in Kingsessing, prompting evacuations

The break in the 48-inch, century-old water main was the latest disruption caused by Philadelphia's aging infrastructure.

A massive water-main break Wednesday in West Philadelphia flooded the streets and damaged several houses, displacing at least five residents.

The Philadelphia Water Department was notified of a water-main break at 56th Street and Springfield Avenue in the Kingsessing neighborhood shortly after 6 a.m., spokesperson Brian Rademaekers said. A 48-inch, century-old water main broke at the intersection, causing water to stream out and fill the surrounding area — the latest neighborhood to face disruption from the city’s aging infrastructure.

Water coursed through the streets, destroying some basements, causing many houses to lose water, and forcing more than a dozen schools to shift to virtual learning for the day.

Philadelphia has about 776 water-main breaks annually, but breaks of this magnitude typically happen once or twice a year, Rademaekers said. And it can take months to repair the damage.

The morning break was a rude awakening for residents who were getting their days started.

“I got up. Got dressed. Was walking out the door to work. I come out and there’s a river outside,” said Sean Fraser, who lives down the block from the break.

Water gushed out from under the pavement, streaming down the streets, onto sidewalks, and surrounding parked cars. The heavy streams of water cracked the asphalt in several places. Residents came out onto their porches, surveying the damage as water rushed past.

The Water Department isolated the flow of the main break, causing the water to stop flowing, by around 11 a.m., said Rademaekers. Full water pressure was expected back for most residents by late afternoon, he said.

At least five people were evacuated from their homes, a Philadelphia Fire Department official on the scene said.

By late morning, the corner of 56th and Springfield looked more like a dredged riverbed than a busy intersection. A massive hole in the road created a small pond of murky, dirty water. An avalanche of mud had poured into a nearby basement. Basement windows near the flooding had been blown out.

Passion Jones woke up around 5 a.m. and looked out her window to see a “river” outside.

Her house, steps away from the main break, was spared damage. But her children were frightened by the flooding and the cracks that opened up in the pavement, she said.

Onetha McKnight, who lives down the block from the main break, has lived in the area for 10 years but had never seen anything like what happened Wednesday. She was woken up around 8 a.m. to a call from her friend asking her to turn on the news. After learning of the break, she stepped outside to find water rushing past her front step.

”It was a river out there,” she said.

The Philadelphia School District closed 16 nearby schools and shifted to virtual learning for the day, due to no running water in the buildings. Water was restored to all schools by Wednesday afternoon, a spokesperson said. Among schools going remote Wednesday was Independence Charter School West, down the block from the water-main break.

» READ MORE: A 130-year-old Philly water main broke in July, flooding Queen Village. Business owners are still waiting for repairs and repayment.

The water-main break is the latest in what has been a recurring issue across Philadelphia, a city with old infrastructure in need of remediation.

The average age of the city’s water mains is about 76 years, Rademaekers told The Inquirer last month.

Over the last 25 years, the Water Department has replaced an average of 19 of its 3,100 miles of mains a year. In 2021, the department repaired an estimated 772 main breaks, for an average of about 250 breaks per 1,000 miles of main.

Freezing temperatures that lead to very cold water in the distribution system stresses infrastructure, and winter months typically see a significant increase in water-main breaks and leak repairs, Rademaekers said. In some years, cold-weather main breaks can account for roughly half of annual water-main repairs.

The Water Department and Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration have been working to secure infrastructure funding through President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, with plans to use it to invest in the water distribution system and water-main replacement, Rademaekers said.

For Wednesday’s break, it will be some time before a cause can be determined, said Rademaekers, as crews worked to pump the gallons of water that remained in cracks and holes in the street. At least six houses had their basements pumped out by the department, he said.

“It’s a painful slow process,” he said. “We essentially want to make the site safe for pedestrians, workers, and buildings.”

Any customers who think their water service has been affected by Wednesday’s break should call 215-685-6300, the Water Department said.