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Sunset Boulevard flood raises serious questions about city leadership

It may be too much to hope for, but now that Sunset Boulevard in Westwood is a giant sinkhole and UCLA is underwater, could the fragile, aging infrastructure of Los Angeles finally get the upgrade it needs?

Sunset Boulevard, after all, is no ordinary street. You could argue that it is the street. Yes, we have other, famous thoroughfares -- Pacific Coast Highway, Hollywood Boulevard, Laurel Canyon, Mulholland Drive, to name a few -- but no street embodies the meaning of Los Angeles quite like Sunset, which begins in the heart of downtown and stretches 22 miles to the sea.

Beyond its geography, Sunset has a pull on our collective imagination that no other street in L.A. can match.

In fiction and in real life, Sunset Boulevard is where Hollywood dreams come true or make wrong turns, then fester and die. They die face down in swimming pools, like William Holden’s character in “Sunset Boulevard.” They die of drug overdoses, like John Belushi in a swanky Chateau Marmont bungalow. They die like the teenager in Jan and Dean's 1964 hit song "Dead Man's Curve," about a 90-degree bend in the road near Holmby Hills.

And now Sunset Boulevard in Westwood is a real-life disaster zone, victim of a broken, nearly century-old water main that spewed millions of gallons for more than four hours Tuesday afternoon straight downhill onto the UCLA campus, submerging cars and flooding the school’s famous basketball arena.

No one was hurt, and my colleagues Matt Stevens and Joseph Serna reported Wednesday morning that no Department of Water and Power customers are without water. That is a blessing.

But the incident has raised many disturbing questions about the leadership of this city.

Why did it take the Department of Water and Power more than four hours to stop the gushing after a water main broke? Why did water crews have to battle rush-hour traffic if they were en route to an emergency? Have they never heard of a police escort? Have our DWP officials, among the city's highest paid, never created a contingency plan for rush-hour emergencies?

Mayor Eric Garcetti has vowed not to raise utility rates, but how does he propose fixing the city's crumbling, century-old pipes?

Will our city officials seize the moment? Will they find a way to capitalize on the appalling images of water cascading down the steps of a submerged Pauley Pavilion, which underwent a $136-million renovation in 2012, and of students wading through a shin-deep flood?

Or will they flake out because raising utility rates is fraught with political danger, and the citizens of Los Angeles are loath to give more money to an agency that is not capable of creating a functional billing system?

Maybe, just maybe, they will take the advice of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who famously once said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that, it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

In 2009, after a series of water main breaks, my colleague Jessica Garrison wrote about the city’s failing pipes, and how they would continue to fail in the absence of a costly, ambitious replacement program.

"We need to have a conversation with the people of Los Angeles if we're going to enlarge and accelerate the program, which is what we'd like to do," then-DWP General Manager H. David Nahai told Garrison.

That was nearly five years ago. 

Last question: What happened to that conversation?

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