Costs sure to rise in Minneapolis water main break

City can't yet estimate the cost of flood damage as crews work round-the-clock.

The cost of a massive water line break in downtown Minneapolis climbed Friday as crews worked round-the-clock on cleanup and repair, restaurants tallied their losses and dozens of vehicles sat submerged in a parking ramp.

The city said it hasn't even begun to add up the costs after 14 million gallons of water gushed from a Ryan Companies construction site Thursday afternoon, shutting off water to much of downtown.

"We don't even have a ballpark right now," said City Engineer Steve Kotke. A handful of businesses near the broken line on the south end of the Hennepin Avenue Bridge were expected to be without water until Sunday night, when Kotke predicted the line would be repaired.

"I'm working guys overtime. They'll be working all weekend long," he said.

Insurers are likely to pay some of those costs. City Attorney Susan Segal said Minneapolis will seek reimbursement from the party responsible for cleanup costs and other damages.  

The city was able to reopen two lanes of northbound Hennepin Avenue for traffic by the evening rush hour Friday, but southbound traffic was still being rerouted around the work site at N. 1st Street.

Some of the costs were tangible and others weren't. The flooding and lost water supply forced dozens of businesses to shut down and send workers home early Thursday.

"It seemed to be a mass exodus out of downtown," Josh Petzel, manager of The Local off Nicollet Mall, said Friday. "Thursdays and Fridays - it's our bread and butter."

The restaurant didn't close Thursday but was without water or running toilets for nearly two hours. Instead of a couple hundred people filling the restaurant, about 30 customers stuck around, leaving The Local out thousands of dollars and more than a dozen employees out of work for the evening.

A block from the break, Origami was forced to close Thursday because it was without water into the night, costing the restaurant between $4,000 and $5,000 in revenue, manager Tim Theobald said. His 12 employees also were without work -- and pay -- for half the day.

"It was kind of a big deal," he said. "Thursdays aren't like weekends, but they're close."

The Guthrie Theater canceled Thursday night's performance of "A Servant of Two Masters," but said Friday that there are 20 more performances remaining of the show so Thursday's ticket holders can use their ticket at other available shows.

Water tested

The city assured residents and businesses outside the immediate area that water remained safe, but was testing it in about 20 locations within a several-block radius of the leak. Tests will be run for bacterial infection, as well as for toxins like pesticides and metals. The city will chlorinate the three-block stretch of water pipe closest to the break to disinfect it once it is repaired.

Some downtown workers weren't taking any chances.

"Even with a water filter, I don't think I will" drink the tap water, said Robert Ramirez of St. Paul, who works for a trading company at Marquette Plaza downtown.

Toilets were flushing and water ran clear Friday morning at the Fifth Street Towers downtown. The buildings and Caribou Coffee shut down early Thursday because of the break. "We got through it," Caribou staffer Luke Norfleet said.

For some, it meant an uptick in business: bottled water. When Louis Ahlberg opened the New-Mart in the TriTech Office Center at 4th St. and 3rd Av. S., the first thing he did was restock the empty water shelves in the cooler. "It's rare to have to put that much in," he said. "I was just shaking my head. I couldn't believe it."

Cars underwater

Dozens of vehicles were underwater at the U.S. Postal Service Building just off Hennepin, where the back ramp remained closed and its bottom swamped. Up to 30 postal vehicles and an "undetermined number" of employee cars were parked there.

"Those cars are going to be losses," postal spokesman Pete Nowacki said. Even only 20 cars -- one early estimate -- would easily amount to a $500,000 loss, according to one specialist in water-damaged cars.

Nearby, at the Federal Reserve Bank, water was running but only essential staff members were working. Normal business was expected to resume Monday.

What went wrong

A new picture emerged Friday of events leading up to the break at the construction site of the $70 million 222 Hennepin apartment-retail development.

Scott Beron, public safety director for Ryan Companies, said a Ryan subcontractor was trying to install a construction caisson under the 36-inch water pipe to connect the development to the sewer pipe when the break occurred. That contractor, United Sewer and Water of Brooklyn Park, did not respond to phone calls from the Star Tribune.

"The biggest concern right now is to get water back on," said Glen Gerads, assistant director of the city's water utility. "Why it happened is going to be secondary to getting it fixed."

Marie Asgian, the city's superintendent of water distribution, said the lost water represents about one-third of the city's daily use this time of year, and that the city would try to recover its loss. She said such a break is without modern precedent.

"I spoke with a person who has been here for 30 years and he said this was the biggest one we've seen," she said.

She said that excavators are supposed to switch to hand digging when they near utility pipes, which were marked in this case, but when working with frozen ground, they try to get as close to pipes as they can with machines.

Complicated cleanup

On Friday, crews removed the crawler hoe that caused the break then toppled over when the water loosened the ground around it. Then gas workers braced a large gas line before continuing to excavate the buried pipe to get at the break. Representatives of assorted utilities kept an eye on the work.

"It's buried under a lot of dirt and debris," Beron said. A large fiber optic cable in the area also made the job more complex, Kotke said.

The city was able to close enough water valves within about two hours of the breach Thursday to isolate the damaged pipe in a section about three blocks long.

Gerads said there was enough pressure in the water system to keep any contamination from entering the remainder of the system.

sbrandt@startribune.com • 612-673-4438 kelly.smith@startribune.com 612-673-4141 rochelle.olson@startribune.com 612-673-1747

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