City of St. George says home flooded by water main break is ‘act of God’; residents see it differently

ST. GEORGE — A St. George woman awoke early Friday morning to thousands of tiny rocks hitting her home. As her home began to flood with water, the woman initially thought a powerful hail and rainstorm was passing over St. George.

“I looked out and, all of a sudden, water just started pouring down off the roof and I thought, ‘boy, I’ve never seen a rainstorm like this, ever – especially coming really from one direction,’” Pam Thornton said. “And I kept saying, ‘Alright rain, let up’ – and it didn’t.”

Residents are upset that the City of St. George won't cover damages caused by a water main break on the 50 East block of 700 South that flooded a townhome, St. George, Utah, May 20, 2016 | Photo courtesy of Justin Burbank, St. George News
Residents are upset that the City of St. George won’t cover damages caused by a water main break on the 50 East block of 700 South that flooded a townhome, St. George, Utah, May 20, 2016 | Photo courtesy of Justin Burbank, St. George News

When the ordeal began around 4:15 a.m., Thornton first thought her home, at 55 East and 700 South, was being pelted with hail, but it didn’t take long before she realized that the water entering her residence wasn’t the result of a rainstorm.

“I started getting some towels,” Thornton said, “and then (the water) started coming in over the top of the sliding doors and then, at that point, I thought, ‘OK, this is something that I can’t handle, I’ve gotta call 911.’”

What Thornton didn’t know at the time was that her residence was being flooded by a City of St. George water main that had ruptured and was shooting a 30-foot geyser of water into the air from the street in front of her home.

Thornton’s patio filled with a foot and a half of water which subsequently flooded her entire home, she said. Water was dripping from the ceiling and coming out of light fixtures, the fireplace and electrical outlets on the wall.

Residents are upset that the City of St. George won't cover damages caused by a water main break on the 50 East block of 700 South that flooded a townhome, St. George, Utah, May 20, 2016 | Photo by Mike Cole, St. George News
Residents are upset that the City of St. George won’t cover damages caused by a water main break on the 50 East block of 700 South that flooded a townhome, St. George, Utah, May 20, 2016 | Photo by Mike Cole, St. George News

Thornton and her husband, Morgan Thornton, had just finished remodeling the interior of their townhome with new carpet and paint after purchasing the home five months ago, Pam Thornton said.

Austin Hunter, a lead technician at Servpro St. George who responded to the scene Friday morning, said the townhome was completely flooded.

“It’s going to need some serious restoration,” Hunter said, “but we should be able to get it all done. The carpet and the pad is soaked (and) all of her furniture – most of the walls will need flood cuts as well.”

Who’s responsible? 

The cleanup company told the Thorntons that all of the carpet and padding, along with part of the insulation and drywall – up to about 2 feet – will likely have to be torn out and replaced to prevent mold. Now, the couple is left wondering who, if anyone, is going to help cover the costs.

“Well, the city told us, ‘we’re sorry, it’s an act of God,’ it’s all up to us to take care of it,” Morgan Thornton said. “It’s their opinion that it was a natural occurrence that their water main ruptured.”

Marc Mortensen, assistant to the city manager of St. George, confirmed that the city considers these situations an “act of God” and that the city isn’t responsible to cover the costs of any damages incurred as a result of the water main break.

“An act of God is actually, it’s an unforeseen occurrence,” Mortensen said. “… Changing conditions in the soil that causes a pipe to erode and explode, causes flooding in certain areas, yeah, I mean, it’s an unforeseen – it’s not something that we could have predicted or controlled.”

City of St. George water crews work to repair a water main break on the 50 East block of 700 South that flooded a nearby townhome, St. George, Utah, May 20, 2016 | Photo by Mike Cole, St. George News
City of St. George water crews work to repair a water main break on the 50 East block of 700 South that flooded a nearby townhome, St. George, Utah, May 20, 2016 | Photo by Mike Cole, St. George News

In this case, Mortensen said, the city would assume the homeowner’s insurance will pick up the damage cost. He said the city hasn’t paid for this sort of thing in the past and that it’s a very rare occurrence when it goes to litigation.

The city received the call of a waterline break at approximately 5 a.m., Mortensen said. A water crew responded to the scene at 55 East within 15-20 minutes and shut off the water.

Workers were able to patch the initial leak in the waterline, Mortensen said, but when water pressure was reapplied, another leak formed so crews capped both ends of the line and will replace the entire section of line next week.

Only two homes are served on the particular section of line involved and the Thorntons home isn’t one of them. Those customers served by the line were without water from about 5:20-11 a.m., Mortensen said, when crews were able to backfeed the water another way to those two homes.

The city’s pipes

The waterlines in the area are approximately 45 years old, Mortensen said, and were installed sometime between 1965 and 1970. The last time the city had a waterline break near that area was in 2010.

City of St. George water crews work to repair a water main break on the 50 East block of 700 South that flooded a nearby townhome, St. George, Utah, May 20, 2016 | Photo by Mike Cole, St. George News
City of St. George water crews work to repair a water main break on the 50 East block of 700 South that flooded a nearby townhome, St. George, Utah, May 20, 2016 | Photo by Mike Cole, St. George News

According to the City of St. George’s website, the water distribution division operates and maintains over 850 miles of pipeline – ranging from 2-inch to 72-inch in diameter – 22 water storage tanks, 16 booster pump stations, 23 wells and over 15,000 valves. Approximately 50 million gallons of water are delivered to its customers during a peak summer day, and nearly 10 billion gallons are delivered on an annual basis.

Mortensen said the city averages about 28-30 waterline breaks per year, which he said is less than half the national average.

“We think we do a very good job of maintaining the infrastructure citywide,” Mortensen said.

The city utilizes a software system in which it monitors breaks – where they occur and what type – and then the city measures and looks at patterns in specific areas, Mortensen said.

“If we see a number of breaks in a particular area, we’ll go in and replace that section of line, and that’s pretty much how we do it,” he said. “Pipes in the ground, you know, we don’t just pull pipes out of the ground because they’re a certain number of years old. … Some pipes can stay, you know, usable and good for well over 100 years. Other pipes we’ve had, after 15 years, they break. It really depends on the soils and what the soil can do to the pipes.”

Nevertheless, the Thorntons still feel the city should be held accountable for the damage caused by its broken pipe that neither located on the Thorntons’ property nor been serving water to the Thornton’s home – until the rupture occurred.

“We’d just like the city to be responsible for any damages that they caused here on this property,” the Thorntons’ son-in-law, Jarad Brinkerhoff, said.

A video, posted online by various members of the Thornton family, has been making the rounds on the internet. The video shows some of the aftermath and damage caused by the water main break during a walk-through of the townhome.

Click on photo to enlarge it, then use your left-right arrow keys to cycle through the gallery. 

Email: kscott@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

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14 Comments

  • LocalTourist May 21, 2016 at 5:45 pm

    The city guy says “Some pipes can stay, you know, usable and good for well over 100 years. Other pipes we’ve had, after 15 years, they break. It really depends on the soils and what the soil can do to the pipes.”
    Sounds to me like the installation contractor did a poor job. Salt Lake City has pipes that are 150 years old and they’re still carrying water. Act of God? I’m not buying it. At the very least, the city should pay the deductible on their insurance. It’s certainly no fault of the homeowner.

  • ladybugavenger May 21, 2016 at 5:57 pm

    Isn’t that convenient to say it’s an act of God st George. How terrible! Since when is a main water break an act of God? St George trying to blame their pipes on God. What a shame, pay up!

    • .... May 23, 2016 at 9:16 am

      LOL ! and when somebody dies the bible thumpers always say ! It’s God will..LOL !

  • R. May 21, 2016 at 6:53 pm

    I hope Mr. & Mrs. Thornton contact a lawyer as soon as possible. If the don’t be assured their insurance company will!

  • old school May 21, 2016 at 8:12 pm

    Act of God? I don’t think that would hold up in court. The responsible civic authority should have a replacement schedule in to systematically update utilities so you don’t have another Flint Michigan on your hands. You don’t wait for the dam to break, THEN build another one!

  • godisdead May 21, 2016 at 8:17 pm

    If there was a god that installed and maintained the water main, that God would be responsible. I this case, the city installed and maintained the system, so the responsibility fall onto their shoulders. What would Jesus do ?

  • Not_So_Much May 21, 2016 at 8:17 pm

    That was an act of God? Give me a break (no pun intended). Did He put the line there? Did He zap it to cause the break? Come on city, own up to your responsibilities.

  • hiker75 May 22, 2016 at 6:26 am

    Silly me. I thought an act of God was weather related. How can an act of God have anything to do with a waterline? I guess a Bishop installed the waterline. It looks like the break occurred in the city street, not the homeowner’s property. If insurance does not cover it (why would they), I would find a good attorney.

  • Lastdays May 22, 2016 at 10:02 am

    These comments are hilarious and really show the education level of some people.
    The phrase “Act of God” come from the court system and years of lawyers litigating disaster related events.
    Insurance companies know the phrase too and it’s the only time they will acknowledge religion in their business.
    Sometimes it’s used as a natural disaster occurrence but can also be used as an unforeseen and unpreventable event. I don’t believe you could prove negligence by the city on this one.
    The water pipe is also buried in the “public right of way”, so maybe the general public should pitch in and help.
    And the homeowners insurance company probably has and “act of God” clause too. Depending how is used, they may or may not pay for these damages.

    • ladybugavenger May 22, 2016 at 8:56 pm

      Oh! in that case maybe they deserved it. They should go to court but the courts have been proven to be unfair and biased in this town. Better hope they are in the right ward

  • 42214 May 22, 2016 at 12:06 pm

    God doesn’t work in mysterious ways. Believers just use him in mysterious ways. Convenient vs inconvenient. In your best interest vs not in your interest.
    Hypocrisy at it’s finest.

  • Proud Rebel May 22, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    I really hate to wish bad luck on anyone, usually. However, it is my most sincere hope that Marc Mortensen finds himself in a situation as the Thorntons have found themselves. Wonder just how long it would take the city to pony up the expense to fix all of Marc’s problems related to this “act of god.”

  • ScanMeister May 22, 2016 at 8:48 pm

    In Canada v. Ottawa-Carleton,10 a water main in downtown Ottawa burst and
    flooded several large office buildings. The building occupants (including the
    federal government) successfully sued the City. While the cast iron main had
    operated without incident since 1917, and had been properly installed and
    operated, it had been defective when originally manufactured, many decades
    before the City took over the road. The Court found the City liable in nuisance;
    the criterion of inevitability relates to what is possible according to the state of
    scientific knowledge at the time.

  • .... May 23, 2016 at 2:37 am

    It pays to make those tithe payments on time eh ?

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