A capital of manhole explosions

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A capital of manhole explosions Washington: The District of Columbia can teach Baltimore a thing or two about urban underground eruptions.

By Ellen Gamerman Sun National Staff Originally published August 15, 2001

WASHINGTON - Trio restaurant has sat on the same corner in Dupont Circle for more than 50 years, and its owner, George Mallios, has seen plenty to gawk at in his anything-goes neighborhood. But manhole covers popping near his front door, blasts taking out his second-story windows, flames spewing from the bowels of the earth near his outdoor tables?

That's a new one.

If Baltimore needs a guide to dealing with the manhole explosions near the Inner Harbor last weekend, it need look no further than 40 miles down the road, to a city some residents here have dubbed "manhole country."

People in most American cities seldom worry about getting whacked by flying manhole covers or dodging fire erupting from below. But so far this year in Washington, nearly 50 manholes have blown their lids or exploded in flames or smoke.

City officials explain the growing ferocity of the explosions by pointing to the increasing crowding of underground electrical cables in a system burdened by outdated equipment that is hard to repair. The result: Manhole blasts that snarl traffic, cut power, close businesses and leave nerves as frayed as old cables.

"My parents started this business in the 1950s; a lot has changed here since then - except, apparently, for the electrical grid," sniffs Mallios. He spent hours this week trying to replace $1,400 worth of windows after five manholes spewed flames Saturday evening, closing his business and others within a few blocks for the rest of the weekend.

Utility officials report slightly more blasts this year in Washington than in any of the past five years. No one has been hurt, but experts are startled by the unusual power of the blasts.

"The frequency of the problems is about average, but the intensity of the problem is certainly a lot more severe," says Peter G. LaPorte, director of the D.C. Emergency Management Agency. "It can be hard to determine what is transpiring. I hate to say we're a little bit better at that than Baltimore, but we've been dealing with it longer."

Earlier Saturday, about 5:15 a.m., a blast shook downtown Baltimore when a chemical leak caused three manhole covers to fly 4 feet into the air at a busy intersection near the Inner Harbor. No one was hurt in that explosion, which sent hazardous-materials teams rushing to the scene.

"I was in town for the Red Sox game, and I knew I smelled something funny," said LaPorte, who happened to be in Baltimore when those manholes blew. "I swear, these damn manhole covers are following me."

Walk on the wild side

For some Washingtonians, after a summer of random explosions, a walk down the street has begun to seem a little like a sidewalk form of Russian roulette.

"I look at the manholes and I think, 'What if this blows up?'" said Carol Joynt, owner of Nathans, a restaurant in Georgetown, the upscale Washington area where many manhole fires and explosions occurred this year before utility officials made a concerted effort to control the problem there. "It happens so suddenly. There's not a lot of warning."

Pepco reimburses businesses for damage caused by the blasts - such as sooty sidewalks and broken windows - but not for revenue lost during any power outages.

The explosions and blackouts in Georgetown this summer, Joynt said, have cost her nearly $20,000. She said she fears that work to modernize the underground wiring, which officials say will begin next month, will further clog traffic and keep visitors away.

During the worst of the explosions, some Washingtonians remained on alert to signs of impending blasts, such as a telltale metallic odor. While Pepco said it seldom received calls about suspicious manholes before this summer, it has reported at least one false alarm every couple of weeks in recent months.

Pepco is taking action in visible ways: New manhole covers, slotted so that smoke and gas can escape, were installed in Georgetown in June to alert utility crews to problems. Since then, no more blasts have rocked Georgetown, though several nearby neighborhoods have been struck.

The Washington manhole explosion usually follows a pattern similar to Saturday's episode in Dupont Circle. A series of electrical short-circuits, probably triggered in this case by intense heat followed by heavy rains and flooding, caused cables in the pipes running under the city to spark.

As the rubber tubing around the cables burned, an acrid smoke billowed through the manholes into the air. About the same time, the short-circuiting caused ear-splitting blasts that shattered windows above ground. Flames erupted from the manholes, prompting crews to cut the power supply and close the street.

"It was like a war," says Myong Choe, who owns the dry cleaners at the epicenter of Saturday's blast. A firefighter hustled her out of her shop just as one of the manholes erupted in thick smoke.

"First I said, 'Uh oh, it's going to blow.' And then all of a sudden, 'Boom!' I was all covered in black."

$30 million project

Power-related problems have hit across the city. Last week, manhole smoke and outages were reported in Adams Morgan, a trendy restaurant area, and in other spots in Northwest Washington. Earlier this summer, a four-day blackout struck parts of Georgetown.

Georgetown is so dogged by breakdowns that Pepco will join other utilities and the city government in a three-year, $30 million project starting next month to replace the neighborhood's underground power network.

Utility experts say the problem is particularly vexing because manhole blasts are not all caused by the same circumstances, and no one fix works for all.

"If we could just say, 'This is the cause of all your problems, this is what we're going to do to fix it,' I can assure you we would have fixed it long ago," said Bill Gausman, Pepco's general manager for power distribution.

"But it's hard to understand. We have thousands of miles of cable and 60,000 manholes in our system, and it's no simple task to try to find the causes."

Plenty of theories abound: The insulation around electrical wires can fray from corrosion, the gnashing teeth of a rat or general wear and tear. Fraying can lead to a short-circuit and spark a fire.

Some experts say the wires are bundled too closely in Washington's narrow underground pipes. And then come the elements of nature: Violent storms and stiflingly high temperatures can strain the equipment and start a slow burn along the cables.

Even with rumblings beneath the streets, some residents refuse to give in to fear: They walk on manhole covers and keep smiling.

"I don't think a few little glitches in traffic and any technical difficulties are going to take away from the charm or the pleasure of visiting here," said Rebecca Pawlowski, a spokeswoman for the Washington Convention and Tourism Corp. "Visitors just aren't asking about manhole covers."

Comic relief

For some of the blast-weary, there is at least a comic opportunity here. Nathans is offering the "Exploding Manhole Cover" - a rum drink topped with whipped cream, sparklers and an Oreo cookie on its side like a tipped lid. The restaurant is also considering giving 20 percent discounts to Georgetown residents if the rewiring project causes more outages.

"It'll be some kind of 'Pepco Special,'" Joynt said.

Then there's the new cocktail she is considering to poke fun at Washington Gas, which plans to do some of its own potentially disruptive underground work in Georgetown during the day, whereas Pepco intends to work only at night.

"I don't have a name for that drink yet," she said. "I'd better not come up with that when I'm angry."


-- Doris (nocents@bellsouth.net), August 16, 2001

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