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Flooding causes scramble for boilers after downtown businesses lose hot water

Flooding causes scramble for boilers after downtown businesses lose hot water

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ST. LOUIS — The company that runs the downtown steam loop went on a mad dash on Monday to find temporary boilers for a dozen downtown buildings — including a city jail, major hotels and sections of Busch Stadium — that lost their hot water thanks to the flooding Mississippi River.

Boilers came to St. Louis from across the Midwest overnight. "One is coming from Chicago, one from Indianapolis," said Sean Hadley, spokesman for the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District.

The hot-water problems came at a bad time, with hotels crowded for hockey's Stanley Cup Final this week and the Cardinals-Cubs baseball three-game series this past weekend.

The trouble started about 4 a.m. Sunday at the Carr Street pump station on the Mississippi.

Crews with the sewer district have been manning the 28 stations along the river 24 hours a day since March to monitor the river's near-historic flooding, said Hadley, who acted as spokesman for the city and businesses involved. Sunday morning, floodwater mixed with rainfall from a Saturday thunderstorm overwhelmed a pipe, causing the station to fill with water. The pumping station, which pumps storm and sewer water out of the city and into the Mississippi, had to close. 

"There was nowhere for the water to go," Hadley said.

Water flooded the street and the main plant for Ashley Energy, which provides steam to major downtown buildings through a 15-mile underground maze of of pipes sometimes called the "steam loop."

The City Justice Center, Busch Stadium, The Dome at America's Center, Westin St. Louis Hotel, Marriott St. Louis Grand Hotel, Hilton St. Louis at the Ballpark and six other buildings were all affected by the outage.

Similar outages had resulted in a week of closures, Hadley said. But none of the businesses closed this time.

"It was amazing," Hadley said. "We managed to have everything stay open for business."

Ashley Energy shipped in temporary boilers from Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana to set up an impromptu station outside its riverfront facility. The company aimed to get steam back to its downtown customers by Wednesday, Hadley said. The plant itself was under 10 to 12 feet of water.

Hadley predicted it might not be repaired and working again until fall.

The company has operated the steam loop system in St. Louis since 2017, when it bought the system from Trigen for an undisclosed price. The company signed a 20-year deal to run the loop, which is over 100 years old.

On Monday, the hotels and city jail officials tried to find a stopgap.

City staff said getting hot water back to the justice center, where 725 inmates were housed Monday, was the top priority. Without hot water, inmates did not have hot showers and were instead provided anti-bacterial wipes and hand sanitizer. The facility's laundry was sent to the city's other jail, the Medium Security Institution, and kitchen staff switched menus.

Richard Bradley, president of the city's Board of Public Service, managed to coordinate the overnight shipment of a mobile boiler from Chicago for the jail. Crews worked for hours trying to get the boiler running, and hoped to restore hot water there sometime Monday, according to a city spokesman. 

Hotels faced their own conundrum. Hot water for guests cut out while the businesses were crowded with visitors for the Stanley Cup Final, at downtown's Enterprise Center on Monday, and the Cardinals-Cubs games over the weekend. 

Westin St. Louis Hotel's general manager, Lance Misner, said the hotel arranged for the overnight shipment of a boiler, again from Chicago, and service was restored to guests early Monday.

Misner said the hotel will be renting the temporary boiler for $25,000 to $30,000 a month. "We understand things happen," Misner said.

It was unclear who will be responsible for the cost of the replacement boilers, officials said. 

St. Louis Health Department Director Fredrick Echols said his staff visited every affected business that provides food service to make sure the kitchens are up to code. Without hot water, the department instructed kitchen staff to stop serving prepared foods that could pose a health risk, like chicken, until hot water was restored. 

Cardinals games weren't significantly affected by the outage at Busch Stadium. Ballpark Village never lost hot water, Matt Gifford, vice president of stadium operations for the Cardinals, said Monday.

By Monday morning, Hadley said, water had been pumped off of Carr Street near the flooded pumping station using replacement pumps from Indiana. Technicians won't be able to tell exactly what went wrong on the pipe until the flooding recedes, Hadley said. 

"With all of the operations we have in place now," Hadley said, "we have never seen anything like this."

Daniel Neman of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

This story has been updated to reflect uncertainty about the liability for replacement boiler costs.

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