CALL it the invisible flood of 1992.
When some 250 million gallons of water poured into the basements of downtown Chicago earlier this week, most Chicagoans couldn't see it. There was no water on the streets. Even the divers trying to plug the leak were plunged in such murky water that they could barely see what was happening.
That invisibility is an important symbol of a much bigger problem, public-works officials say: Chicago is ignoring a huge problem of its deteriorating infrastructure. So is the nation.
"The neglect of infrastructure is epidemic in the United States," says Marshall Silver, an engineering professor at the University of Illinois.
"There's an infrastructure debt that's being built up at an alarming rate," says Ronald Norris, vice president of the American Public Works Association.
Instead of maintaining things, cities are lurching from crisis to crisis. Often, these are small, everyday incidents. Sometimes, they are huge disasters.
Chicago clearly falls in the latter category. City officials knew in February that water was leaking into an old system of underground tunnels built nearly a century ago. The city was waiting for a second round of bids to fix the problem when the leak became a gusher.
The water flooded the basements of some 200 buildings in downtown Chicago, shut down electric power, sent home thousands of workers, and cost businesses an estimated $500 million in lost revenue. (See chro-nology.)
Had Chicago acted in time, the repair would have cost roughly $10,000. Instead, the ultimate cost will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars in damage and cleanup. On Wednesday, President Bush declared Chicago a federal disaster area, releasing funds to help pay for the cleanup.
Such delays in maintenance are not unique to Chicago. In fact, they're commonplace, says George Bugliarello, president of Polytechnic University in New York and former chairman of a mayoral commission on science and technology.
"It's easy to cut money from infrastructure," he says. If the cuts create a long-term problem, "you hope it doesn't happen on your watch.... The next administration inherits it and, in turn, hopes that it won't happen now."
In a recent cost-cutting move, New York eliminated oiling of bridges, says Bugliarello. The result is that the rollers on which the bridges expand and contract freeze up, eventually causing major structural damage.
The infrastructure problem is hardly new. The plan to reverse Chicago's river was introduced in the 1850s as a way to improve sewage disposal and drainage. But it took a devastating flood in 1899 before city officials pushed forward the plan, says Paul Barrett, a history professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
The difference is that today there's even less incentive to fix the infrastructure, these public-works experts say.
A big part of the reason is financial. With urban budgets squeezed and taxpayers unwilling to pay more, mayors have little money to work with.
In 1960, 20 percent of all public spending went for infrastructure, says Mr. Norris of the American Public Works Association. By 1985, the figure was 7 percent, he says. The bill for fixing these problems runs into the trillions of dollars, he estimates.
A related problem is that cities are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit talented individuals.
"We are not attracting as high a quality individual to public service as we did 20 to 30 years ago," says Robert Mier, former Chicago commissioner of economic development under Mayor Harold Washington. "It has become so fashionable to trash public service."
"You put people in an impossible situation with declining resources and, pretty soon, even the good ones will get out," Norris adds.
The first political victim of the Chicago flood was John LaPlante, acting head of the Department of Transportation.
Mayor Richard M. Daley demanded his resignation because Mr. LaPlante didn't act quickly enough to plug the leak.
Public-works officials call LaPlante a technically trained professional, but a few question whether someone with a background in traffic engineering should have been put in charge of the department responsible for bridges and tunnels. LaPlante defended his actions, telling reporters he got conflicting advice about whether to plug the leak immediately.
The question that the Chicago flood poses is far larger than finding a culprit, however.
"What you have is a public that's aroused and it has been put off the track by firing a minor official," Professor Barrett says.
Public attitudes will have to change before the nation really tackles its infrastructure woes.
"That situation wouldn't exist if people took responsibility for their community.... We need to demand of our political structure that we maintain what we have."
These officials aren't optimistic that the Chicago flood will serve as a national catalyst.
"When it comes to things that are buried in the ground, people have very short memories," says Professor Silver.