Water-main break forces shutdown of Harrisburg state government complex

A sculpture at Pennsylvania's Capitol was joined Monday by a temporary installation of a more basic kind. A water-main break shut off service to the downtown complex.
A sculpture at Pennsylvania's Capitol was joined Monday by a temporary installation of a more basic kind. A water-main break shut off service to the downtown complex.
Posted: April 19, 2011

HARRISBURG - Schoolchildren missed out on seeing the famous mastodon skeleton. News events and high-level meetings were scrapped or relocated, and some unlucky state workers were forced to use outdoor toilets.

All because of a water-main rupture several hundred yards behind the Capitol.

The break forced a rare shutdown of the state government complex, sending thousands of workers home, disrupting business, and disappointing hundreds of children on their spring trip to the state museum.

The pipe break on private property caused water pressure to drop precipitously, prompting Gov. Corbett to order the Capitol closed.

"We noticed the problem when everyone arrived and started using the water and there wasn't any," said Troy Thompson, spokesman for the Department of General Services.

By 11 a.m., the complex was a virtual ghost town, with only Capitol police, maintenance workers, and a skeleton crew of employees - including Department of Revenue workers staffing the help line on tax-deadline day - on the job. Visitors and tour buses were turned away and Capitol meetings were relocated.

The governor's executive staff set up shop at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency two miles away.

"The functions of government will continue," said Corbett's press secretary, Kevin Harley, just before noon.

At the same time, trucks began unloading more than a dozen blue porta-potties for those workers left in the waterless Capitol. One was deposited next to the grand marble sculpture titled The Burden of Life outside the main entrance.

With the legislature off for Easter-week break, there were fewer than the usual number of people in the Capitol on Monday.

The major news event scheduled in the rotunda was a Tax Day news conference hosted by Common Cause and Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware), among others, calling on the legislature and Corbett to close business tax loopholes. The group took its message instead to the front steps of the Capitol.

Three blocks away at the Harrisburg Hilton, the Pennsylvania Press Club's monthly luncheon went on as scheduled, with featured speaker was John Cavanaugh, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

Cavanaugh quipped that he had tried everything, including "working on the city's water line," so he would not have to come. The 14 schools in the state system are facing a more than 50 percent cut under Corbett's proposed budget.

Spring brings tens of thousands of students to the Capitol and museum on class field trips, including on this day a group from a Norristown school. Instead of seeing the planetarium and mastodon skeleton, they got an impromptu meeting with Corbett and a trip to Hersheypark's Chocolate World.

The third graders from Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary School were touring the Capitol with Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery) and ended up with a visit to the governor's office. The governor gave the children a quick lesson in state history and a primer on how government works, Harley said, adding that he also shared stories about attending Catholic school.

By late Monday afternoon, water was again flowing normally through the main system feeding the Capitol.

And Tuesday, it will be business as usual. "Everything's back to normal," Harley said.

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.


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