CHICAGO -- As Chicago struggled to bail out from its biggest public works disaster since the Great Fire of 1871, experts said yesterday that the subterranean river leak that shorted out the Loop highlighted the perilously neglected state of the nation's infrastructure.
"The Chicago flood is more than a crack in a retaining wall," said Rep. Norman Y. Mineta, senior member of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee. "It's the shape of things to come in America unless we reverse decades of underinvestment that threatens to undermine our cities."
About 200 Chicago buildings remained without power and tens of thousands of workers were turned away from their jobs for a second day as approximately 250 million gallons of water sloshed through a network of old coal-delivery tunnels and into basements throughout the central business district.
As estimates of damages and lost business revenues ranged from the millions to even the billions of dollars, Gov. Jim Edgar declared the central city a state disaster area, a prelude to being granted a federal disaster declaration.
The deluge began Monday morning after a sedan-sized rupture developed in a portion of abandoned tunnel that runs under the Chicago River. The hole, believed opened by the delayed effect of pilings being driven into the river last summer, acted like the drain on a bathtub as it sucked river water into the 45-mile tunnel system that honeycombs the Loop and adjacent areas.
After more than a day of trying to plug the leak with concrete, rocks, sandbags, quick-drying cement and even mattresses, officials said that the flow of water had slowed significantly but probably had not yet been stopped. They were preparing to send down divers in protective cages to place sandbags by hand. They were also struggling to jury-rig a system that could siphon water out of the tunnels and into a monstrous underground catch basin known here as Deep Tunnel.
Meanwhile, Mayor Richard M. Daley fired a top Cabinet officer after it was learned that the city Transportation Department had known for at least a month that there was a leakage problem in the tunnel near the spot where the break occurred.
The flood, Mr. Daley said, was "a major problem that could have been avoided." At a City Hall news conference, the mayor played a dramatic video made in January by a crew for a company that was laying cable TV line in the tunnel around the area where the collapse ultimately occurred. It showed a large swatch of crumbled concrete wall, standing water and silt.
The cable company notified the city, which did its own inspections March 13 and determined that the tunnel badly needed to be patched and that the job might be done for $10,000, Mr. Daley said. Rather than order repairs on an emergency basis, he said, the job apparently was put out through the regular competitive bidding process this month and had yet to be awarded.
The mayor made it clear that more disciplinary actions were to come. "I don't like the word 'heads will roll,' " said Mr. Daley. "But people will be held accountable."
Used from the turn of the century to deliver coal and merchandise to downtown merchants, the tunnel was largely abandoned 33 years ago. But it was neither maintained nor shut off, setting the stage for Monday's catastrophe.
Though the problems here are clearly more dramatic than most infrastructure failures, analysts said they vividly demonstrate a dangerous and foolishly wasteful trend toward deferring maintenance on roads, bridges, sewers, and an array of other important capital projects.
"We can't afford to stand back, wait for the next catastrophe and then turn to the Army Corps of Engineers for a quick fix," said Mr. Mineta, a California Democrat. "We've got to plan for the future and then get the systems we need built before the old ones undercut us again, and again and again."
Ronald Norris, a Missouri public works official and vice president of the American Public Works Association, said that a 1989 presidential task force study found that spending on infrastructure repairs and replacement had declined from 20 percent of all federal, state and local expenditures in 1960 to only 7 percent by 1985.
"States and cities are balancing budgets by deferring maintenance, and that is false economy," said Mr. Norris, who estimated that his own state had put off $600 million in needed repairs to public buildings. "Sooner or later you pay, and you pay treble damages and more."
For harried taxpayers, the flood brought one-week reprieves past today's regular filing deadlines. All they need do to get an extension was scrawl "Chicago flood" across the tops of their returns.