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As downtown Mpls. dries out, city says water OK to use

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Extracting heavy equipment
Crews work to extract heavy equipment from a hole left by a huge water main break and street flooding at Hennepin Avenue and North 2nd Street in downtown Minneapolis on Friday, Jan. 4, 2013.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Crews were mopping up in downtown Minneapolis Friday, after a massive water main break flooded the city's historic Gateway District and closed Hennepin Avenue, the main artery through downtown.

The floodwaters have mostly receded, after millions of gallons submerged the northwest corner of downtown. Water service has been restored to all but a couple of blocks, mostly lined with low-rise commercial buildings.  

"Feel free to come downtown, drink the water, flush the toilet, do whatever you do when you're downtown, but this isn't going to have any impact," Mayor R.T. Rybak said.

It started when a 3-foot water main broke open as a contractor was doing utility work in the street at Hennepin Avenue and 2nd Street North. A six-story apartment block is going up there, replacing a defunct Jaguar dealership at Hennepin and Washington Avenues. Officials estimated nearly 14 million gallons of water poured through the streets in the area.

  "That happens to be an extremely large water main in that area and if one water main in the city could be broken to cause the most disruption, that may well be the one," Rybak said. "Ironically the head of public works and I were just talking about that water main a couple days ago, just in conversation about how much water it carries. It carries a lot."

How much?

Well, down the street, at the main Minneapolis post office, it filled up the underground garage to a depth of as much as 12 feet, according to United State Postal Service spokesman Pete Nowacki.

Scene of the water main break
Crews remove an excavator from the scene of a water main break at Hennepin Avenue and North 2nd Street on Friday morning, Jan. 4, 2013.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

He said crews were still pumping out the three-level ramp along the river, just downstream from the Hennepin Avenue bridge.  

"Probably about 25 to 30 administrative vehicles, the vehicles we own down there, as well as a yet undetermined number of private employee vehicles," Nowacki said.

It will be days before crews even start fishing them out, he said, as they first have to assess how much gasoline and other hazards might have been left behind by the receding water.

  "The last I heard they're expecting it'll probably be Monday at the very least before we actually get to those vehicles to start towing them out of there," Nowacki said.

Elsewhere, the damage wasn't so severe. Down the street at the Guthrie, the theater canceled last night's performance of the Servant of Two Masters. Nearby restaurants closed for lack of water, and 14 Metro Transit bus routes had to be detoured around the site of the break to accommodate cleanup and repair of the cast-iron pipe that runs under the street.

Car navigates high water
A car navigates the intersection of Hennepin Avenue and North Second Street, adjacent to a construction site where workers ruptured a 3-foot water main which shut down several blocks of downtown Minneapolis on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013.
AP Photo/The Minnesota Daily, Mark Vancleave

At Merit Printing, on 2nd Street North, CEO Chuck Klein admitted watching with some worry as the water crept in under the shipping door. They still didn't have water today, and weren't sure when the toilets or faucets would be working again.

  "It's not as bad as you would think," Klein said. "It's just a slight inconvenience."

He said his 40-year-old company doesn't rely much on water for production and can muddle through.

  Rybak said that the city will be be making a financial claim against the construction company that apparently caused the leak. Contractors typically carry liability insurance to cover such accidents.

  "We don't know what the the cost of the damage, or how much, obviously, it cost us with our city crews," Rybak said. "But that's going to be worked out, and as the city attorney said this morning, we are obviously going to try to recover those costs, for where ever it's appropriate."

Marie Asgian, superintendent of the water distribution system in Minneapolis, said the water utility thinks they at least know now what happened, as a sewer crew was working to hook the apartment project up to the city sewer. 

  "They were trying to jack a casing pipe, to stick the sanitary service in, underneath our water main. And that didn't work out," Asgian said.

She said the sewer crew drove the casing pipe right through the water main, breaking it open. Asgian said she expects the actual water main repair to be finished  Friday night, although cleaning and sanitizing the finished repair may mean the main isn't back in service until Sunday.