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Water main break floods downtown Duluth street, businesses

A car is surrounded by water on East Superior Street in Duluth on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, after a 16-inch water main burst downtown flooding Superior Street from First Avenue West to First Avenue East. (Clint Austin /

A 16-inch water main burst late Tuesday afternoon on Superior Street in downtown Duluth, sending water gushing down the street, across Lake Avenue and into some nearby businesses.

Howard Jacobsen, manager of water and gas delivery for the city, said crews were on the scene quickly trying to shut off three valves needed to stop the torrent of water that was flowing down Superior Street to First Avenue East and then down to Michigan Street.

Thousands of gallons of water spilled onto the street as Duluth firefighters, police and public works crews tried to keep drivers away from the scene. The breakage occurred after 4 p.m. and crews had the flow stopped by about 5:30, said Dan Berg, a city supervisor on the scene.

Water appeared to be pouring into the Electric Fetus, among other buildings, on the lower side of the street. The breakage occurred in front of the Minnesota Power office building.

The gush of water caused significant damage to the street itself, officials noted.

Jacobsen said he suspected parts of downtown had low or no water pressure because the line is a major supplier of water to that part of the city, but it wasn't clear what parts because few people were downtown to report the problem. He said crews would work on repairs all night if necessary in an effort to resume water pressure as soon as possible.

Berg estimated it could take 30 hours or more to fix the problem and fully restore water.

"It's an old pipe, 1887 I think, and with all the utilities running down Superior Street we can't just start digging," Berg said.

Jacobsen said the breakage probably was caused when the ground shifted around the aging pipe, causing it to crack.

"We came out of sub-zero temperatures and warmed up pretty fast (Tuesday), and that's what happens a lot of times," Jacobsen said. "Those are really old pipes."

Minnesota Power spokeswoman Amy Rutledge said there was some water seepage into the street level of the utility's building but little or no major damage was expected. Crews also were working to remove water form the building's parking ramp, which is expected to be open Wednesday.

City officials urged motorists to avoid Superior Street near Lake Avenue, noting the water probably will freeze overnight and cause unsafe conditions even after the flow is shut off.

Jacobsen said it was the largest water pipe to crack in Duluth in many years.