Days After UCLA Flood the Question is, Who Pays?

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Hundreds of cars submerged below murky water. A landmark basketball court, newly refurbished, showing signs of buckling. Soaked and stained carpets. An athletic track coated in mud.

The cost of the damage hasn’t been pegged from the rupture of a pipeline that spewed more than 20 million gallons of water, but officials Wednesday were beginning to assess its soggy aftermath at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Rich Mylin, associate director of events and facilities, led a tour of damaged areas for Los Angeles Department of Water and Power workers in hard hats, who snapped photos and took notes. UCLA officials said six facilities were damaged and about 960 vehicles remained trapped in garages, with many below water left behind by the roiling flood.

DWP spokesman Joe Ramallo said people who suffered damage from the flooding can file claims with the agency, which will work with UCLA on settling losses.

If a claim ends up in court, a plaintiff would have to show negligence on the part of the agency to establish liability, said Loyola Law School law professor John Nockleby. For example, if someone could show the aging steel pipe should have been replaced long ago “that could be an indicator something should have been done about it.”

The 30-inch steel main that burst Tuesday on Sunset Boulevard shot a 30-foot geyser into the air that sent water down storm drains and onto campus.

The nearly century-old pipe was still gushing 1,000 gallons a minute Wednesday before it was shut off completely in the evening. Repairs were expected to take until Friday night or Saturday morning.

At its peak, water was streaming out of the break at a rate of 75,000 gallons a minute. The amount of water spilled could serve more than 100,000 Los Angeles Department of Water and Power customers for a day.

The rupture points to the risks and expense many cities face with miles of water lines installed generations ago. And it occurred in the midst of California’s worst drought in decades and as tough new state fines took effect for residents who waste water by hosing down driveways or using a hose without a nozzle to wash their car.

Despite the break, no utility customers were without water. No injuries were reported.

Determining damages can be tricky. For example, does it make more financial sense to repair a car or cover it as a total loss? But the owner might want a new vehicle, not a repair job on one that had been submerged in a garage for days.

After a 62-inch water pipe burst and sent water pouring into the Studio City neighborhood in 2009, some residents complained that they were forced to wait months to collect damages and were pressured to provide unreasonable amounts of documentation.

At the time, city Councilman Paul Koretz told the Los Angeles Times he was embarrassed by the city’s actions and cited the case of an elderly couple who felt they were forced into accepting settlements worth far less than their losses because they were tired of fighting. City officials said they had no evidence of bogus claims but some appeared exorbitant or lacked proper documentation. One sought a payout claiming a $95,000 diamond ring was washed off a kitchen counter.

The flood left people stranded in garages Tuesday and sent water cascading into the Pauley Pavilion, less than two years after a $136 million renovation.

UCLA Vice Chancellor Kelly Schmader said 8 to 10 inches of water covered the basketball court and it showed some signs of buckling. The floor will be repaired or replaced as necessary and will be ready by the start of the basketball season this fall, Athletic Director Dan Guerrero said.

“The building itself has not been structurally compromised,” he said in a statement.

On Wednesday evening, six men helping to pump out water from the pavilion were treated for exposure to carbon monoxide from a generator’s exhaust, city fire spokeswoman Katherine Main said. Two were taken to a hospital in fair condition and four were treated at the scene.

Elsewhere, torn-up strips of soggy carpet were piled outside the J.D. Morgan Center, home of the school’s 111 NCAA trophies and a museum to its athletic accomplishments featuring legendary coach John Wooden’s den. None of the displays appeared to be damaged, but the floor was bare and was being dried out.

Workers shoveled away dirt that had washed up against buildings and removed sand bags in the early morning before most students or employees streamed onto campus. Hoses snaked out of the subterranean parking garage and generators hummed constantly in the damage zone, providing power to the cleanup effort.

At the track, which was renovated seven months ago, street sweepers were scrubbing the brown mud off the sky blue surface. A track and field camp relocated to the football practice field to run sprints and leap hurdles.

“Right now, we’re hopeful it’s cosmetic,” Mylin said, “and we’ll be back to running around.”

Post-doctoral student George Saddik stood Wednesday outside one of the garages where his SUV was parked on the bottom level.

Saddik, who had to spend the night at the home of a brother-in-law, said he was less concerned about his vehicle than about how he would commute to his home 50 miles away.

“I have insurance so I’m not sweating it,” he said.

The pipe must be dry for repair work to begin, but on Wednesday leaky valves above the break allowed water to continue seeping in. Shutting off valves and pipes creates the risk of more ruptures in the 7,200-mile system, especially on hilly areas in and around campus.

The reputation of Los Angeles for producing the next new things in style and culture doesn’t extend to its creaky infrastructure. The city is decades behind in repairs to cratered streets and sidewalks and some of its water lines have been around so long that William Mulholland could have seen them going in.

Mulholland is the father of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed in 1913, that brings in water from 200 miles away and reshaped Los Angeles from a parched railhead into the nation’s second most populous city.

Recent years have seen a series of pipe breaks in Los Angeles that prompted promises to expand repairs and replacements. There’s been talk of a water rate increase to speed the work. In 2009, several dozen breaks — one that sent up a gusher the size of Old Faithful — flooded streets.

(Copyright 2014, KRON 4 and the Associated Press, All rights reserved.)

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