‘Sinky’ filled, serves as wake-up call on aging system
By Lou Fancher
Just like that, it’s over.
Except it’s not, cautioned town officials during an all-day portentous downpour Nov. 16, at an otherwise festive ceremony in Moraga.
The occasion — Attended despite the rain — by local residents, business owners, town officials, PG&E representatives, Chamber of Commerce president Wendy Scheck, Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, state Sen. Steve Glazer, and others — marked completion of the $2.9 million repair job needed to bring “Sinky the Sinkhole” back up to level ground.
The hole at the intersection of Rheem Boulevard and Moraga Road made its appearance March 13, 2016, a day during which “it just about rained sideways,” according to Moraga Police Chief Jon King. “I wasn’t on duty, but when officers called, it was reportedly a one-foot wide hole. By the time I arrived on scene soon after, it was a 10-by-20 foot hole. There were gas and electrical lines twisted like spaghetti down there and gas coming out of the pipe sounded like a jet engine.”
It could happen again — and indeed, three other sinkholes have pockmarked Public Works Director Edric Kwan’s five-year tenure.
“These are all indicators that our storm drain system is at the end of its life. Unlike pavement, when storm drains fail, it can be catastrophic,” warned Kwan.
Others echoed his comments like not-funny mirrors in a fun house and urged the town to be proactive in addressing its over-worn road and drain infrastructure.
“Prevention is better than mediation,” said Town Councilwoman Jeanette Fritzky. Councilman David Trotter called the sinkhole “a wakeup call.” Glazer said that after the state initially denied funds for repair, he and Baker met with Caltrans directors to brainstorm solutions, knowing “this kind of thing can break the back” of a community.
But even though townspeople know well the travails of the subsequent 20-month recovery period, with a major artery through the town blocked and businesses in the area suffering — Scheck said community and Town Council support has remained strong.
She thanked first responders for rapidly issuing shelter-in-place warnings and preventing an explosion that might have impacted shoppers and store employees, including her daughter, who worked at the pet shop nearby and was unaware of the danger. “If this place had blown up, she probably would have blown up with it. Deep in my heart, I say thank you.”
John Anderson, a resident of Moraga for 11 years after moving from Boston, remembered arriving minutes before the sinkhole collapsed. A part-time business teacher at Diablo Valley College, Anderson volunteers on the town’s road committee.
“We were going to eat dinner at Royal Siam, a Thai restaurant in the shopping center. The gas in the atmosphere was super strong. I’m amazed it didn’t explode.”
About the prolonged repair process, Anderson said, “The town took the episode seriously. Most towns and cities don’t have the reserve to handle this kind of emergency. Any delay was due to stalled state funding. And Prop 13 — a frozen property tax since 1978 — that’s a unique and not-good problem.”
Although restaurant and shop owners express relief that the repair is finally complete, the ripple effect of disrupted transportation did cast a pall on local businesses, according to jewelry designer Natasha Grasso.
“It happened less than two months after we opened, so it’s all I’ve ever known. In Orinda, where I live, people thought everything was closed, inaccessible. Getting foot traffic has been a challenge.”
Grasso’s limited-edition, custom jewelry fortunately had a robust online clientele that helped to sustain her first bricks-and-mortar location.
“The chamber has been great, too,” she said. “They supported sales and events like Sinky’s one-year birthday celebration to draw people in. I hope the community will support us during the holidays.”