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California and the West

10 Flood-Damaged Condos to Be Razed

Cleanup: Questions continue to be raised about dome-shaped reservoir that burst, sending water crashing through area. Westminster vows to help victims.

September 23, 1998|BONNIE HARRIS HAYES and GREG HERNANDEZ and JOHN CANALIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WESTMINSTER — Wearing hard hats and slogging through reeking muck, victims of a flood from a ruptured water storage tank briefly reclaimed their homes Tuesday before officials tagged 10 of 49 damaged condominium units for demolition.

City officials promised aid, from free post office boxes to temporary housing, and Orange County officials declared a local emergency, pledging county resources to help the victims.

Five million gallons of water burst through the 8-inch-thick concrete wall of the city's aboveground reservoir Monday, injuring six people, swamping a fire station and nearly wiping out Hefley Square Town Homes.

The disaster raised questions about whether Westminster had done enough to upgrade the aging dome-shaped reservoir, which was made of prefabricated concrete.

City documents show that there were warnings, beginning in 1991, about cracks and leaks and the need for repairs.

The City Council majority at one point rejected a deal to privatize the water system, which would have brought in millions for safety measures and other improvements.

Most water tanks in the county are built of poured concrete or of steel, rather than precast concrete, which is considered potentially unstable by some earthquake experts.

Ten months before Monday's rupture, an industrial inspector warned city officials that an earthquake might have damaged portions of the tank.

The December inspection, conducted by an underwater diver, showed two rips in the liner, which the diver repaired, as well as rust and cracks.

The inspector determined that although the vast majority of support beams were stable, a few displayed unusual "movement." But the report did not find serious damage or recommend immediate action or repairs.

The findings were reviewed by city engineers and another consultant a month later, records show. The second consultant concluded that "the existing condition is not serious. . . . We have nothing to worry about."

City officials acknowledged Tuesday that they had detected leaks at the tank for at least five years. But City Manager Don Vestal denied that the city had ignored any potential problems with the tank, as well as an identical storage facility near City Hall. Both tanks were inspected last week, he said.

"We did not see, or do not see, that there were red flags, ever," Vestal said.

Mayor Frank Fry said it is "normal" for water storage tanks to leak. "It's like a dam, they all leak," he said.

City officials were no closer Tuesday to figuring out why the wall collapsed and said it could be a month before they know the cause. Next week, council members will hire an independent engineering firm to investigate the cause and determine damages.

Prefabricated concrete walls have long been considered potentially dangerous in earthquake country. Dozens of buildings and parking structures made with the material had to be torn down after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

The flood injured six people, including an Orange County Fire Authority captain who was hospitalized with a broken arm.

Residents, meanwhile, were escorted to the complex Tuesday by building inspectors who allowed them to retrieve some of their belongings. Although 10 units will be demolished, inspectors said, those who live in the remaining 39 units will probably be able to move back today.

"Most of the stuff in my room doesn't belong to me," said David Vandermade, 42, as he surveyed what used to be his two-story townhome on Hefley Street.

He stepped over trash and chicken wire, metal beams and hubcaps--items that had been strewn about the living room early Monday by a 6-foot-tall current of water. A barbecue grill was shoved behind his couch. A flattened garage was plastered against his kitchen window.

David and Salome Vandermade were one of 10 families who learned Tuesday that their homes were scheduled for demolition.

Salome Vandermade made her way through her mud-streaked front door--its "Home Sweet Home" sign still intact but underlined with a red-tag warning from the city--and went straight for her son's bedroom, where she fished out his Mater Dei High School football uniform. She also found his red and white letterman's jacket, a gem that made her smile as she held it up proudly, amazed that it was unharmed.

"What more can you say? This is all we have," she said.

Times staff writer Janet Wilson contributed to this story.

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