SAN JOSE -- Just what does it take for a San Jose freeway to flood, messing up the morning commute as it did Friday morning? Some tenacious thieves, a whole lot of rain and a bit of bad luck.
As the storm poured more than an inch of rain onto the Guadalupe River in downtown San Jose overnight, a small pond began to rise on the adjacent Highway 87. By about 4 a.m., it was so bad that southbound cars couldn't get through the Taylor Street underpass and the California Highway Patrol had to keep at least the right-hand slow lane closed for about 10 hours.
It turns out that hours earlier, thieves in the area had dug more than a foot underground and broken through a box that was welded shut to steal copper wire from the pump station that serves the underpass, Caltrans spokesman Bernard Walik said.
Caltrans noticed its pumps weren't working and brought out a backup generator -- but then that, too, failed, Walik said.
So crews then tried a third tactic, bringing out portable pumps to manually drain the water from a section of freeway that serves about 8,000 vehicles an hour during peak commute times. That tactic slowly worked, and although the rain continued to fall throughout the morning, crews were able to open two of the three lanes on the freeway by noon. The last lane opened by about 2 p.m.
The problem was a visible example of a copper wire theft issue Caltrans has been dealing with at its 30 pump stations in Santa Clara County. San Jose has also been combating vandals stealing wire from thousands of streetlights, causing roads to remain dark at night.
"This is an epidemic," Walik said. "These guys are just getting very, very smart and very abrasive. They're digging into ground and breaking weld joints."
Police, who haven't caught Friday's Highway 87 suspects, say they rely on people to report suspicious activity to catch wire thieves.
But that's not the only cause of street floods. On the local roads, San Jose crews had to clear leaves out of about 30 drains Friday, causing puddles or worse to bubble up around local streets, said Hans Larsen, the city's transportation director.
The only one that caused significant flooding was on Santa Clara Street across from the SAP Center, where fire crews had to rescue people from cars that ended up stuck in the water Friday morning. In addition to the debris blocking the drains there, the water pumps in the area are old and are not designed for modern use, and are slated for replacement, Larsen said.
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.