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The men with hard hats and shovels disappeared into the earth. They spent their Saturday afternoon in a hole in the ground in University City, scooping up dirt to fix a massive sinkhole that emerged after a storm drain pipe broke two days earlier.

The drain pipe’s failure had caused the road to buckle and collapse. The sinkhole grew to 50-feet long, 20-feet wide and 8-feet deep. It was about as long as a basketball court is wide.

After the road fell into the earth, the city shut off water to nearby residences and businesses, including defense contractor SAIC. The company sent its workers home that day. The city routed traffic through a private parking lot. News helicopters flew overhead with their cameras.

The busted drain pipe, a storm water department spokesman told NBC 7 San Diego, was 32 years old and rusty, made out of a metal that’s prone to failure.

The storm water department was familiar with the area around the sinkhole, which emerged on Campus Point Drive. For months, according to city data, crews had worked on fixing a storm drain just a few blocks away on Campus Point Court. The city has spent more than $570,000 on repairing that drain as part of a $100 million loan it received in March 2009 to fix the worst of the worst roads, buildings, sidewalks and storm drains. That’s not to say the city was fixing the wrong drain. Without repairs, who knows if the other drain pipe would have failed, too?

But that work crews could fix a storm drain blocks from another drain that was on the verge of collapse speaks to one of the most significant problems in repairing San Diego’s infrastructure. The city doesn’t know exactly what’s broken.

We examined this issue as part of our recent in-depth story on the city’s slow infrastructure repair spending. Last March, public works department officials estimated it would cost $840 million to repair fully its roads, buildings and storm drains. While the figure was the most comprehensive accounting of San Diego’s eroding infrastructure in recent memory, it still fell far short of addressing the whole problem.

In fact, no one knows how big the problem actually is. At least a quarter of city departments don’t know the condition of their facilities and park repairs alone could total more than $2 billion, a recent audit said. Those numbers only add to the infrastructure backlog.

Even the data on streets, buildings and storm drains lack enough specifics. San Diego’s storm water system consists of more than 24,000 drains, 754 miles of pipe and 84 miles of channels and ditches. Together, they’re supposed to drain rain and urban runoff from San Diego’s streets.

Of the 754 miles of drain pipes, the city has only fully assessed 15 miles, all made of the material most likely to fail, corrugated metal. The city expects to finish examining its additional 23 miles of corrugated metal pipe by the end of the year. Tony Heinrichs, head of the public works department, told me in September that the city wants to replace all corrugated metal pipe in 15 years.

But what about the remaining 716 miles of pipes? Heinrichs said the city has no plans to comprehensively examine them.

“It’s a tremendous amount of money,” Heinrichs said.

Instead the city’s relying on occasional consultant work to televise the inside of pipes and observations from work crews to figure out the storm drains’ condition.

It was corrugated metal pipe that disintegrated below Campus Point Drive. City officials confirmed that the failed storm drain pipe was different than the one repaired with money from the $100 million loan. Beyond that they didn’t say anything. When I tried to interview Heinrichs this week, he referred questions to Mayor Jerry Sanders’ office. Sanders’ office didn’t respond despite numerous attempts.

So it’s unclear if the city had examined the pipe below Campus Point Drive before it crumbled. It’s also unclear how much it will cost to repair the sinkhole.

At the least, sinkholes can provide some entertainment on a lazy Saturday. On a weekend drive from Rancho Peñasquitos, Cris Perry and Mike Fitz stopped to look at the sinkhole after they saw it on the news. They stood on barriers that allowed them to peer over a fence at the hole. They thought it looked like a kidney. If a kidney was the size of a swimming pool.

“Some of us have a fear of sinkholes,” Fitz joked. “We wanted to see if it would swallow the whole town.”

If you want to see more sinkhole, here’s a report our media partners at NBC 7 San Diego did when it first emerged last Thursday:

View more videos at: http://nbcsandiego.com.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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