Had you been walking around near UCLA last Tuesday, which of the following two things would you have least imagined might happen to you: One, you would find yourself confronting a tornado with man-eating sharks spinning around inside of it. Two, the pavement in the street before you would crack open and a giant geyser of water would shoot out of the hole causing untold damage to the campus of UCLA?
Both scenarios seem amazing and improbable, but then so does the possibility that there would ever be even one “Sharknado” movie let alone two.
The water main at UCLA busted open shortly before 3:30 pm Tuesday sending water “cascading,” according to both witnesses and video, onto the UCLA campus. Parking garages were flooded as were sports facilities and the newly remodeled Pauley Pavilion. As of Wednesday, 700 cars remained isolated and left behind because of the water.
On Tuesday, Fire department personnel had to rescue some people from their cars. It was, at the least, a “Waternado.”
Of course as things were floating in the wake of the gusher, so were accusations floated about the response to the rupture.
The length of time it took DWP to shut off the water became a source of contention and by the very next day officials at UCLA were saying the cost of repairs would come from the DWP.
The Los Angeles Times described the ruptured water main as “rusted, steel riveted…” There was mention of a period five years ago when L.A. endured some 101 major water line breaks in the summer and fall in pipes the LA Times described as an aging and corroded old-cast pipe network.
And so, like a bridge collapse nobody is expecting, we had our big west side water event thanks to deteriorating infrastructure. Where will it strike next? Will the damage be greater? Will there be injuries or loss of life? Show of hands now: who among us is ready to pay for replacing… well… everything old thing we know needs replacing?
It wasn’t that many months ago that it became public that many concrete buildings in downtown L.A. would do poorly in a major earthquake. Whether there has ever been anything amounting to a conspiracy to keep that information quiet, we can reasonably assume that engineers and other smart people know when infrastructure is vulnerable. But who is responsible for leading the charge against crumbling infrastructure when the only real solution means billions of dollars of rebuilding?
In fairness, allow me to suggest that the true enemy is time itself. In Milwaukee, where I was born (so far no bronze plaque has been fastened to the hospital), they have an interesting situation with their City Hall building: It’s sinking. Maybe an inch and three quarters so far. When the hall was built in 1895, it was built on a tamarack swamp using massive wooden pilings. Over the years, the wooden pilings were kept wet for preservation but now the wood may be deteriorating. One estimate to fix or replace the base runs at about $15 million.
All this infrastructure mess is very different from the science fiction movies of our youth. In those films, the future people of 2014 navigated their flying cars to bubble-domed living structures where they enjoyed a delicious square meal that was actually orange and green squares, followed by some 3-D television and futuristic sex with a comely robot. Rarely in those movies did the robot turn over in the middle of the night to whisper, “We’ve got to do something about the basement holding up our Bubbletropolis. It’s rotting and sinking!”
But at least as far as the water pipes in LA, and bridges all over the country, it’s clear that part of our Bubbletropolis are rotting and sinking. It’s just that we had so many other things we wanted to do with the billions it’s going to take to make these things right.
Agencies do and will continue to report on decaying infrastructure. But for most of us, these things are out of sight and thus out of mind. Unless you happened be near UCLA last week and got your shoes soaked.
It’s not a pleasant thought that something handsome and newly revitalized like the Pauley Pavilion could have its features damaged by an old leaky pipe. But then, that’s the thing: The pipes aren’t just leaky. They are, many thousands of feet of them, falling apart.
Same with the bridges in some cities; same with the pilings holding up Milwaukee’s City Hall. We haven’t done anything wrong in most cases except hope that something well-made back in the 19th or early 20th century would hold up forever.
We weren’t expecting to have these problems, just as an actor being eaten on the SyFy Channel might be bewildered by the presence of sharks in a tornado. Some things take a while for us to get our heads around. But a geyser of water shooting 50 feet straight out of your street can help clear things up fast.