Last night, around 3 a.m., our corner was suddenly the frantic focus of Los Angeles municipal emergency services. I was actually awake and working at my computer, when the water pipes in the house made a strange whooshing sound. Lights went on in my neighbors' house. We met on the sidewalk outside -- to be greeted by the sight and sound of a gusher of water erupting at the corner. The water main had blown.
My house, which stands right on the corner, was the one most at risk. Already the flood was deep enough to wet the floor of cars parked along the street, and the water level was surging into my front gate, to the first step in the walk.
My neighbors and I called 911, and were transferred to the fire department. Three minutes later the fire truck came. It just sat there for 10 minutes, then left without saying anything to us.
We all looked at each other. There we were, alone in the L.A. night with our disaster. I looked at the power line and phone line that ran along that side of the street, with water now raging around the base of the huge poles, wondering if I might see those huge poles starting to topple. And they'd surely topple towards my roof.
So I called 911 again. This time I was shunted to the police department. Fifteen minutes later, two squad cars pulled up. The cops told us that DWP had been notified, and inspected the roaring flood with flashlights. Then their radios crackled, and they said, "We've gotta respond to a car chase on the 10." They raced off with their lights flashing.
Nobody, it seemed, wanted to bother with us.
Our next phone call was to the local news media. In no time, a news chopper was hovering in the mauve night sky (it never gets completely dark here). They got their B-roll footage through a telephoto lens. By now a few other neighbors had collected outside too.
Finally a white Department of Water and Power van rolled up, followed by a news van and a camera man. The city guys squinted around with flashlights, mumbled something about possible structural damage, and found a shut-off point where they turned off part of the flood. But the system continued to drain fiercely from all over that part of the city.
Visions of Yawning Sinkholes
At 5 a.m. my house made the top of the KTLA news. There it was -- my wrought-iron front gate on the TV screen, in the lurid glow of the chopper spotlight, with water lapping at my step. Plus comments by city officials on their ongoing investigation of the city's aging water system. Ours was the sixth water-main break in the city in just a week, including a huge one in Coldwater Canyon, when a 95-year-old pipe gave way and wiped out an entire intersection.
Now it's nearly 11 a.m. As I write this, our intersection is crowded with DWP hardhats and yellow municipal monster machines. I am grateful for the sound of jack hammers. Underneath the roadway, the exploding water pressure had literally uprooted about a hundred square yards of concrete and asphalt, and hoisted it six inches off its footing. A monster backhoe is digging up that part of the street to replace the burst main and repair the roadway.
My greatest fear was that a yawning sinkhole would appear, with my house falling into it. California has a lot of problems with sinkholes. But this wipeout was evidently not big enough for a sinkhole. And fortunately my house was built on a raised pad -- as are many in this 1920s neighborhood. So the raging river didn't rise high enough to wet its foundation. We had been lucky.
As I chatted with one of the DWP crew, he said in passing, "L.A. has got 7000 miles of water mains, and we're always out there replacing some of them. But they're getting old, and there just isn't enough money or people to stay ahead of them."
Always the Lessons of Ancient Rome
Now and then, amid all the clamor about human rights, a person is forcibly reminded that there is something called the right to clean drinking water, and sewage disposal, and poles that bring land-line phone service, and the electricity to run a home and office. These things aren't mentioned in the "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" part of our founding documents. But try enjoying free speech without drinkable water.
At moments like this, I'm reminded how fragile we all are -- how dependent we all are on these humble services.
A couple of weeks ago I watched a hair-raising two-hour special on the History Channel, titled "The Crumbling of America," about our nation's aging infrastructure. In a word, our water mains and bridges and dams and levees and airports date back to public works of the Great Depression, or World War I, or even earlier. The United States has failed to keep up with repair and replacement of these vital works, being content to splurge the money on foreign wars. Now these systems are long past due to be fixed, or replaced.
The History Channel's conservative producers reminded a viewer ominously that one of the reasons why the Roman Empire collapsed was that its infrastructure fell apart. I was fascinated that they passed up a chance to trumpet their usual message of "Rome fell because of sexual immorality." For once, it seems that conservative historians are telling the truth. Rome's weak point was the vast system of aging stone aqueducts that brought water from outlying regions to supply the 2 million denizens of the city. But by the 5th century, as Germanic tribes invaded the empire, all they had to do was cut the aqueducts, and Rome's vast population became environmental refugees. For several centuries, the great city was all but deserted, while the government of Roman Christianity re-located to Constantinople, where the aqueducts were still working.
The TV special tells of a similar dire threat to California's present water supply. Right now, aging levees in the Delta area protect a huge reservoir that supplies 50 percent of southern California's water supply via canals. These levees, like the ones in New Orleans, are in bad shape. They could fail in the next round of epic floods that periodically inundate the Sacramento Valley. Imagine southern California having to empty itself out, like Rome did, because its creaky old water mains don't have enough water to carry.
President Obama has mentioned infrastructure on his short list of "things to do." Hopefully, when he gets healthcare reform squared away, the President will tackle this yawning emergency -- a sink hole that could swallow the whole country, little by little. If he can find the money, Obama can create infrastructure-repair jobs for millions of unemployed men and women. (And I'll bet that the lunatic teabaggers in the Republican Party will oppose infrastructure repair, insisting that it is a "socialist plot.")
I'm grateful that we have water coming out of our faucets this morning. But time is running out, as my own city corner has just reminded me.
Photo by Tyler St. Mark