WASHINGTON – The nation's capital is known for its abundance of hot air, a place where more than a few politicos have blown their stacks.
But even local residents were shocked this week when manhole covers around the city's most exclusive neighborhood literally popped their lids. The resulting mayhem knocked out power to 1,600 customers, among them some of the city's best-known homes and restaurants.
It all began Wednesday night, when a set of mangled utility wires in the city's Georgetown neighborhood frayed, sparked and finally caught fire. The underground inferno in turn caused the explosion that sent flames and smoke shooting out of manhole covers, and residents and tourists scrambling.
"I came outside and I saw smoke coming from the manhole by SunTrust Bank," local resident William Quick told The Washington Times. "Five minutes later, I heard a bang come from the manhole."
"The damage was significant," confirmed David Morehead, a spokesman for the Pepco utility company, which owns and has spent more than 36 hours trying to fix the faulty wiring.
Pepco has more than 25 two-person crews working around the clock, climbing down each manhole along the nine-block stretch of road that crosses in front of the tony Four Seasons hotel. There, electricians splice together cables, sometimes taking as much as five hours at a time to hook bad wires to good ones.
To assist residents who had virtually evacuated the neighborhood — home to Washington gliterrati like Katherine Graham, Madeleine Albright and Kitty Kelley — Pepco has a truck at the end of the main drag distributing dry ice to help neighbors save their refrigerator contents.
It's not every day there is an explosive fire in the streets of Georgetown. But this is Pepco's third such incident in recent years.
"The first round, the most spectacular, was February in 2000," Morehead said.
No one has been injured by the flying manhole covers, but Pepco was concerned enough to announce plans for a $35 million rewiring project in the downtown area to "reduce manhole incidents" and limit outages. The D.C. Emergency Management Agency has also set up a shelter and a "mobile command unit" at the scene.
And with temperatures reaching nearly 90 degrees late in the week, cable wires weren't the only things that were frayed. "This is not amusing to the 80 businesses that have lost power," said DCEMA director Peter LaPorte.
Still, not everyone lost out.
Jerry Whitmire, a manager at Nathan's, said the outage stops at the wall his restaurant shares with the shop next door. His bar has become an oasis for tourists looking for an open restaurant and for workers stopping in to cool off.
"We've developed a nice rapport with the police department and Pepco," he said.
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