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Work to repair broken water main in Center City Philadelphia could take months

The cause of the water main break will not be known until the 48-inch pipe is removed and tested.

Sansom Street looking east after a water main break around 4 a.m. Tuesday, July 2, 2018, that flooded the streets in Center City.
Sansom Street looking east after a water main break around 4 a.m. Tuesday, July 2, 2018, that flooded the streets in Center City.Read morePatricia Madej

With the mud along Sansom Street now dried to dirt, crews in hard hats worked Thursday to clean up and repair the mess caused by a 48-inch water main that burst below a Center City intersection two days earlier — a process officials say could take several months.

John DiGiulio, a Philadelphia Water Department spokesperson, said Thursday that the intersection at Sansom and Juniper Streets would remain closed while the work — which will include a wider excavation of the sinkhole that opened up as a result of the break — is done.

"The hole will get bigger," said DiGiulio, who pegged the project as lasting months.

The cause of the break will not be known until the main is removed and subjected to metallurgical testing, he said.

>> READ MORE: Recent 48-inch water main breaks in Philadelphia

Tuesday's predawn break spewed about 15 million gallons of water into the streets surrounding the intersection, knocking out power for hundreds of Peco customers and flooding basements of buildings, including a number of restaurants in an area that is densely populated with eateries. A handful of Peco customers, including the 30-story Wells Fargo building at 123 S. Broad St., remained without electricity Thursday.

The intersection was busy with activity Thursday — restaurant workers assessed damage, while others prepared to open for the day. Crews from the Water and Streets Departments, Philadelphia Gas Works, Peco, the Office of Emergency Management, and Verizon were on site. Also there were representatives of Veolia, operators of Center City's steam loop, whose pipes run below the same streets.

There is no estimate yet as to the cost of damage caused by the water, but Water Commissioner Debra McCarty said about 30 to 40 properties were affected. Owners who sustained damage can file a claim, but the city's liability is limited to $500,000 for the entire incident, as residents of a Southwest Center City neighborhood found out after their basements were flooded when a 48-inch main broke at 21st and Bainbridge Streets in 2012.

That incident, which closed the intersection for weeks while work to replace the main was underway, resulted in $1.7 million in claims, which were settled for less two years later.

Efforts to raise the liability cap have gone nowhere in the state legislature.

"Situations like this, this case will take a while," McCarty said. "People should keep track of all their receipts. … They have to accept claims up to two years, and then once that's all collated by risk management, it gets turned over to a judge and the judge determines how the funds are distributed. My experience is that folks will get, unfortunately, pennies on the dollar."

The Water Department set up an information tent at the intersection of 13th and Sansom Streets, where claims representatives and public-affairs staffers were prepared to help affected businesses. A letter distributed to the businesses detailed Tuesday's events and the next steps, including assessing the impact made to other utilities, repairing damaged infrastructure, and restoring the street.

"Most importantly, PWD appreciates your patience during this emergency work, as any water main break of this magnitude can be messy and disruptive," the letter read. "We will work as quickly as possible in order to restore your community back to normal."

Some businesses are back in action, including El Vez, while others are still in cleanup mode. At Time,  a whiskey bar at 13th and Sansom, it will be at least two weeks until customers can stroll back in for a drink.

Time's basement was flooded with four to five feet of water, frying electrical panels.

"The basement, which is the beating heart of the entire restaurant, is a total loss," said Patrick Iselin, director of restaurants for Time and a group of other establishments.

>> READ MORE: Water main break wreaks havoc on Center City restaurants

He estimated damage to be in the six figures, not including revenue lost from the interruption of business.

"I would encourage people to just get out and support any of the businesses that are in Midtown Village that are open, even though the sidewalks don't look super pretty," said Kate Moroney Miller, the group's director of operations. "Anybody that is open, whether they're our restaurants or not our restaurants — this is a very tight-knit community of bars and restaurants and people. The employees, they need jobs, so people need to come out and continue to support the places that are open."