Mean Streets : Public works: Pothole patchers find that inconvenienced drivers can be nastier than the weather. Recent rains have kept crews hopping.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are times when David Sakamoto feels like he's in a rut.

Like on days when the weather turns nasty, passersby are even nastier and the workload makes him wonder if he is in over his head.

Sakamoto is a professional pothole man.

He is one of 70 pothole patchers who work full time on Los Angeles' 7,500 miles of streets and alleys. This week, the 31-year-old Sakamoto and his co-workers are up to their asphalt in alligators.

Last week's rain has created thousands of new potholes. And a longstanding city promise to try to plug every hole within 24 hours is keeping the pothole patrol hopping.

Potholes are created when rain seeps through cracks in the roadway and makes the soil underneath mushy. That causes the pavement to sink, creating more cracks--"alligatoring," as street workers call it. Then the weight of cars passing over those cracks breaks up the paving and a pothole is born.

Officials say potholes caused by last week's storms will continue showing up for weeks to come. They say it may take a month to fill them all.

But Los Angeles streets are more saturated with cars than with rain. Some impatient motorists would rather drive over potholes than around pothole pluggers.

A patching project on Barham Boulevard in Hollywood on Wednesday caused a traffic jam that purportedly provoked a fistfight between two drivers.

Elsewhere, motorists were taking out their frustration over blocked-off lanes by aiming their cars at pothole crews. In the past, they have also aimed guns--although city officials say no shots have been fired.

"I've had a lot of close calls with people driving through the cones," said Sakamoto as he and partner Carlos Jimenez shoveled hot asphalt into a two-foot-wide hole in the 1300 block of Martel Avenue. It was one of 40 potholes that the pair would fill this day.

"I jump out of the way twice a day," said Jiminez. "Some people are mean. We're just trying to do something nice for people."

The city's 35 two-person pothole crews fill about 200,000 holes a year, said Gregory Scott, a street maintenance supervisor. About 70% are reported by people who call the pothole hot line: (213) 485-5661.

The 24-hour fix-it pledge has been made because the city views potholes as an emergency safety hazard, Scott said. As a result, most holes get patched before they become big problems.

"This is not New York. We've never lost a car in a pothole. People in L.A. are not bashful. They call and report potholes," said William Harding, a third-generation street maintenance worker who is in charge of roadways in the Hollywood area.

Los Angeles' mild climate also helps. Streets in other cities break apart when rainwater freezes and expands inside cracks, said Isaac Sparks, a street superintendent in the Mid-City area. Sparks said Cleveland's potholes are the biggest he has ever seen.

Some Easterners actually boast of their legendary potholes. Joked a scholar at American University to a Washington, D.C., newspaper last week: "What do you call the academicians who come to study Washington's streets every year? Experts in risk management--or Roads Scholars."

A Minneapolis columnist last month chronicled one pothole as "deep enough to trap small cars. In fact, the driver of a subcompact might actually enjoy a moment or two of weightlessness as the vehicle plunged into the abyss."

In Chicago, researchers have spent $1.1 million developing a prototype pothole repair truck that uses a computerized imaging camera to size up potholes and robot arms to fill and seal them.

On Martel Avenue, Sakamoto and Jimenez used a jackhammer to even out the edges of the pothole. Then they shoveled asphalt heated to 320 degrees from a four-ton pile in the back of their dump truck. Finally, they smoothed out the patch with a noisy, lawn mower engine-powered tamping machine powered by a noisy lawn-mower engine. The repair cost the city about $7.30.

Passing motorists and residents were patient while the pair blocked off the street. That is because it is a neighborhood of Russian immigrants.

Said Igor Mamulis, who moved from Kiev six months ago: "We have bigger potholes back there."

Rough Roads Ahead Hundreds of potholes have appeared in local roads because of recent storms. They can form in just a few hours after asphalt roads have been drenched. Road crews are out in force filling them, while unlucky drivers who have run into potholes are having their mechanics make repairs. The Making of a Pothole 1. Water under the road Rainwater sinks through cracks in old or weakened asphalt. The water is soaked up by the mixture of rock, gravel and sand that supports the road. 2. Roadbed erodes Vehicles passing over the road force water through the soggy roadbed, eventually eroding parts of it. 3. Asphalt breaks away Asphalt sinks into the eroded portions of the roadbed and eventually cracks under the continued impact of vehicle tires. Chunks come loose. 4. Repairs Holes may first be patched with "cold" asphalt, which does not require special equipment. Later, a permanent repair is made with hot asphalt and steamrollers. Source: County and city public works departments, Auto Club of Southern California and Anaheim Hills Tire

Damage to the Car Potholes can sometimes cause several hundred dollars worth of damage to cars. If the steering seems unusual or other problems appear, have the vehicle checked. Potholes Can: Flatten a tire Bend a wheel Ruin wheel alignment Damage shock absorbers or suspension struts Damage parts under the car, if it "bottoms out" Researched by DANNY SULLIVAN / Los Angeles Times

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