Fort Lauderdale water crisis drama started with ‘Hey, we broke something here’

It was supposed to be an easy job — not one that would shut down an entire city.

But a series of major goofs and errors turned an underground drilling project into a nightmarish tale where the water pipes ran dry, leaving 250,000 people and businesses without water in Fort Lauderdale and several nearby cities.

The details of what happened that day in July 2019 — and how an unlicensed worker came to be operating the powerful drilling rig for a Florida Power & Light job — are laid bare in court documents.

A three-man crew started work around 11 a.m. on July 17, digging a trench for an underground pipe near the runways at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. Sometime after 3 p.m., their drill hit Fort Lauderdale’s main water supply line, a 42-inch concrete pipe that carries water from the city’s wellfields to its Fiveash Water Treatment Plant.

Their first clue that something was awry: Water came surging up from the ground.

Their first call went to their boss.

“Hey, we broke something here,” they told Geovanis Rivera, the Homestead man who runs his Geo & Yus company out of his home.

What did I hit?

The drill punched a 6-inch-wide hole through 7 inches of concrete. His guys, who were drilling 7 feet down, weren’t sure if they’d hit a water or a sewer main, Rivera said in a deposition. Hours later, a tree stump was used to plug the hole.

Rivera didn’t realize how big a deal the breach was until he saw the news that night.

With the pipes running dry, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis declared a state of emergency. Hundreds of hotels, restaurants and other businesses from Fort Lauderdale to Tamarac were forced to close. The next morning, thousands of people woke up to a boil-water order that lasted four days for some and six days for others.

Neither Rivera nor his workers had a clue there was a massive water pipe right where they were digging.

But they should have, according to a lawsuit filed by five businesses forced to close that day: The Las Olas Company (owner of the Riverside Hotel), Press & Grind Café, Rocco’s Tacos & Tequila Bar, Di Pietro Partners and HHR Lauderdale Beach Limited Partnership.

With no running water, fire sprinklers wouldn’t work and toilets wouldn’t flush. Several hotels, including the Riverside, were forced to evacuate guests and cancel reservations.

Harbor Beach Marriott estimates it lost $300,000 from the whole ordeal.

“It was like a hurricane,” said Bill Scherer, an attorney representing the plaintiffs along with Adam Moskowitz. “Everybody went home and bunkered down for a day.”

Scherer estimates businesses throughout Broward County lost up to $300 million in revenues.

“They just screwed up at every turn,” Scherer said of the contractors. “With directional drilling, you don’t know where you’re going because it’s underground. Water started coming out and then it was just a geyser. Like a fire hydrant on steroids times 1,000.”

The suit, filed last year, is expected to go to trial Jan. 11. An upcoming hearing on Sept. 18 will determine whether the case will be granted class-action status to cover all businesses impacted by the water main break.

City suing too

A second lawsuit, filed by Fort Lauderdale on July 13, seeks to recoup $800,000 in repair costs.

Both lawsuits name FPL and three subcontractors as defendants.

FPL hired Infratech Corp. to replace buried electrical cables. Infratech subcontracted the work to Florida Communication Concepts, or FCC. That company then hired an even cheaper subcontractor, Geo & Yus Corp.

Rivera spoke briefly to the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Thursday. He at first agreed to an interview, apologizing for not being entirely fluent in English. After the first question, he politely ended the interview.

“I think you should call my attorney,” he said.

Rivera, a Cuba native, moved to Miami in 2016 and opened his business the following year.

A high school graduate, he spent four years studying to be a technician in civil construction but worked in tourism instead, he said in a deposition.

Attorneys for FPL and all three subcontractors could not be reached for comment despite calls to their law firms Thursday morning.

According to the lawsuit: FPL crews never bothered to visit the job site before the work began. And officials with Infratech and FCC, the company that hired Geo & Yus, did not show up that day to supervise the job.

Jose Carlos Torres was the man operating the drill that day for Geo & Yus, Rivera said in his deposition.

In his deposition, Rivera said he did not know whether Torres had any formal training to operate that kind of drill.

Torres and the other two men on the crew are not licensed by the state to do the work they were doing, Moskowitz said. The crew did not use ground penetrating radar. If they had, they would have found the pipe.

Another huge error was made when FCC put out an alert about the underground work but gave the wrong address, the lawsuit says.

Relying on a service called Sunshine 811, FCC sent out an alert to companies that might have lines in the area so they could come out and mark them before the work started.

Fort Lauderdale gave the all-clear because it had no lines at the address submitted by FCC: 2525 NW 55th Court. But the drill crew was working at 2417 NW 55th Court, a full 200 feet away.

More mistakes

FCC made another mistake when it claimed there would be no directional boring, the lawsuit says.

Timothy Hicks, who launched FCC in April 2019, defended his company during his deposition, laying the blame squarely on Fort Lauderdale for not coming out to mark the pipe.

In his deposition, Hicks said city workers initially claimed the water pipe didn’t even belong to Fort Lauderdale.

Hicks said his foreman rushed to the job site as soon as he got a call from Rivera about the pipe spewing water. The foreman told Hicks two men who work for Fort Lauderdale showed up, but left after deciding the pipe wasn’t theirs.

“Oakland Park showed up, said for sure it’s not theirs,” Hicks said in his deposition. “They left. And [the foreman] was calling the city of Fort Lauderdale to come back because they had already been there and had left, saying it wasn’t theirs also. Then about an hour or so after that, two hours later the city of Fort Lauderdale came back to the property and said, ‘Hold on, wait a minute, maybe this is ours.’”

Then they set about trying to find the control valves to shut off the water, Hicks said.

FPL knew the location of the water pipe but never warned contractors to look for it, the lawsuit alleges.

in the meantime, FPL has filed cross claims against the subcontractors, arguing it was not responsible for mistakes they might have made.

“Our response is FPL was negligent because they never went to the site,” Moskowitz said. “And because directional drilling is an inherently dangerous activity, FPL is liable for all of their subcontractors.”

Susannah Bryan can be reached at [email protected] or 954-356-4554 or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan

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