CHICAGO (AP) — This merciless winter is taking a heavy toll on the nation's pipes and pavement, breaking hundreds of water mains that turn streets into frozen rivers and opening potholes so big they snap tire rims and wheel axles like Popsicle sticks.
From Iowa to New York and Michigan to Georgia, the relentless cycle of snow and bitter cold is testing the strength of the steel-and-cement skeletons on which our communities are built, the patience of the people who live there and the stamina of crews whose job is to keep the roads safe and the taps running.
Even after the weather eases, state and local governments will be left with steep repair bills that could affect their budgets for months to come.
In scores of cities, once-smooth roadways have been transformed into obstacle courses by gaping potholes that can seriously damage passing vehicles but are too large to avoid.
New York City crews filled 69,000 potholes in the first five weeks of the year — nearly twice as many as the same period in 2013. In Iowa, a Des Moines official said the city has never endured so many broken water mains in the 100-year history of its water utility.
Michigan's top transportation official warned that the icy conditions would create more potholes than "we've probably ever seen in our lifetime."
Busted water mains have created the most dramatic scenes — and the greatest challenge for repair crews, who must dig into rock-hard ground to reach pipes that are up to a century old and cannot withstand the pressure exerted by earth that shifts as it freezes.
On Tuesday, a broken water main in Detroit flooded several blocks, trapping cars that included a taxi. The cab driver had to be plucked out by rescue workers.
"The fireman came and got me out — put me on his shoulder," Michael Hooks said. "Thank you, Detroit firemen."