Even after six months, the flood’s presence lingers in broken pavement and caution tape at the corner of Sixth and Bainbridge, hangs in the closed storefront windows of dreams deferred, and seeps in the minds of Adam Volk and Chivonn Anderson.
With an industry rattled by the pandemic and a Brooklyn location closed by COVID-19 shutdowns, Redcrest Fried Chicken owners Volk and Anderson thought signing the turnkey lease to open up shop in Queen Village in the summer of 2021 was the fresh start they needed.
The site of the former Bainbridge Street Barrel House was perfect for their second restaurant location, they thought, and they had hopes of serving customers by October.
That all changed just three weeks after inking their names on the new lease in July, when a 130-year-old cast-iron water main ruptured in front of the restaurant. Water gushed through the streets of Queen Village in the early morning hours, rushing into basements, coating the streets in a muddy sludge, and damaging more than 120 homes and businesses. The basement of the restaurant-to-be was suddenly under 35,000 gallons of water — submerging everything from the freezer to the HVAC system — and with it, their plans for an easy opening washed away to Philadelphia’s aging infrastructure.
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“We were taking a huge risk, trying to open a full-service restaurant in the middle of a pandemic, but it was an opportunity that was really too good to pass up,” Anderson said. “And then, to go from turnkey to basically having to rebuild a restaurant like that — it’s so devastating and demoralizing.”
Their situation is just one example of a frequent issue with the city’s 3,100 miles of water mains, which suffer about 776 breaks a year, according to the Water Department. Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration is slowly replacing the old pipes and could eventually get help from the federal infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed in November.
But that work will take years and will be too late to help Volk and Anderson — or hundreds of others affected when pipes fail.
Months later in Queen Village, business owners wait in waterlogged limbo as they work to rebuild and wait for financial help, the once-bustling intersection now a patch of mud-covered pavement cordoned off by city barricades.
The city estimates that the 30-inch main break and surrounding road will be repaired by April, nine months after the rupture — the cause of which is still under review, according to Water Department spokesperson Brian Rademaekers. But for financial remedy, many will have to wait longer.
Anderson and Volk said their insurance claims for the break have been denied, while their landlord’s claims are under review. In the meantime, their landlord has paid some money out-of-pocket and has begun some demolition work, Anderson said. They now hope to open Redcrest Kitchen for limited business by the spring.
“It’s frustrating. It’s sickening. It’s maddening,” Volk said of spending hours on hold with the insurance company seeking assistance. “I’m at a point where I have acknowledged that there’s nothing, there’s really nothing more I can do to make anything happen.”
The business partners are not hopeful about getting help from the city, either. Due to state law, the city’s risk management office allocates no more than $500,000 per incident in compensation — a limitation that’s proven a challenge in other large water-main breaks.
Anderson, who also works as a real estate agent, said she hopes lawmakers will advocate for insurance companies in Philadelphia to be forced to offer businesses coverage for water-main breaks.
“Because the infrastructure is so old, these things are going to happen. It’s not a question of if, it’s just when,” she said. “You have insurance, it’s mandatory … [but] when something happens, they go out of their way to deny your claim.”
» READ MORE: $500,000 liability limit frustrates victims of water main break
In 2012, a massive break near 21st and Bainbridge Streets flooded 21 homes and racked up about $1.3 million in claims from nearby homeowners and businesses. The settlement ended two years later in Common Pleas Court, with claimants getting about 60% of what they’d sought. And in 2018, a 48-inch main burst near the highly trafficked Sansom and Juniper Streets, flooding about 30 businesses and amassing more than $1 million in claims.
» READ MORE: A year after massive Center City water main break, repairs finally wrapping up
In the Queen Village break, 43 out of the 128 affected businesses and property owners have filed claims with the city, Rademaekers said. Volk estimates that the damage to his restaurant is more than $300,000, and is not confident that the city’s payout will address his needs.
A block away at Olly, where the July flood ripped through the basement, damaging the security system and the custom pastry table, and ruining the freezer, owner Chris D’Ambro said he estimates he lost more than $120,000 in contents and revenue. The restaurant still hasn’t been able to reopen as D’Ambro waits for insurance money.
But he’s not counting on the city. After he learned of the $500,000 liability cap, and that payouts take years, he didn’t bother filing a claim with Philadelphia.
“Small businesses and businesses in general need to be supported by the city, and not held down. It’s cumbersome,” D’Ambro said of the claims process.
The average age of the city’s mains is about 76 years, according to Rademaekers. Over the last quarter-century, the department has replaced an average of 19 miles of mains a year.
In 2020 the department aimed to accelerate its process, aiming to replace 34 miles of mains in a year. But Rademaekers said the pandemic slowed that progress. Now, the city aims to replace a total of 42 miles over the next three years.
The city’s aging water infrastructure continues to strain under extreme cold and heat, and from the wear and tear of cars. The cold is especially taxing: In some years, breaks in freezing weather have accounted for nearly half of all water-main repairs, Rademaekers said.
January is typically the busiest month, with an average of 179 breaks according to data going back to 1965, Rademaekers said.
This month in Kensington, a 12-inch main burst near F and Clearfield, submerging cars and leaving the streets a muddy mess and seeping into basements.
Rademaekers said the city is working with federal and state partners to secure any available funding under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
But Volk and Anderson are left to wait for help.
“I’m powerless against the city, and I’m powerless against insurance companies,” Volk said. “So it’s very really weird, like, I’m kind of at peace with the fact that I’m helpless in it.”