This merciless winter is taking a heavy toll on the nation’s pipes and pavement, breaking hundreds of water mains that turn streets into frozen rivers and opening potholes so big they snap tire rims and wheel axles like Popsicle sticks.
From Iowa to New York and Michigan to Georgia, the relentless cycle of snow and bitter cold is testing the strength of the steel-and-cement skeletons on which our communities are built and the stamina of crews whose job is to keep the roads safe and the taps running.
Even after the weather eases, state and local governments will be left with steep repair bills that could affect their budgets for months to come.
In scores of cities, once-smooth roadways have been transformed into obstacle courses by gaping potholes that can seriously damage passing vehicles but are too large to avoid.
New York City crews filled 69,000 potholes in the first five weeks of the year — nearly twice as many as the same period in 2013. In Iowa, a Des Moines official said the city has never endured so many broken water mains in the 100-year history of its water utility.
Michigan’s top transportation official warned that the icy conditions would create more potholes than “we’ve probably ever seen in our lifetime.”
Busted water mains have created the most dramatic scenes — and the greatest challenge for repair crews, who must dig into rock-hard ground to reach pipes that are up to a century old and cannot withstand the pressure created by earth that shifts as it freezes.
On Tuesday, a broken water main in Detroit flooded several blocks, trapping cars, including a taxi. The cab driver had to be plucked out by rescue workers.
The repairs are made all the more difficult by dangerous subzero temperatures that freeze soil down to a depth of 3 or 4 feet.
“The crews out there, their coveralls are freezing solid,” said Greg Swanson, general manager of Moline’s utilities. At times, their pant legs get so stiff, they can’t even bend their knees.
“They get in their trucks to warm up a bit, and they just stay with it,” he said.
Because the ground is so rigid, leaking water often does not escape directly above the busted pipe, but travels hundreds of feet before finding a soft spot or an opening, occasionally shooting into the air like a geyser, Swanson said.
Not only that, but the ground is so hard that the same digging machines that can normally expose a pipe in less than an hour have to scrape and claw for 11 hours or more to do the same job.
“The contractors say they’ve never seen anything like it,” said Doug Dunlap, a village trustee in the tiny Illinois community of Lyndon.
Compounding the workers’ woes are parked vehicles that are difficult or impossible to move because water that rose to their bumpers has turned to ice.
“We had tires that wouldn’t spin because they were in a huge block of ice, and we had to chop the ice until they could get out,” said Lenore Joseph, describing a row of cars on her Chicago street that looked like so many bugs trapped by flypaper.