Manhole explosions blow the lid off city-wide integrity problem

American Times, Washington
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The Independent US

When it exploded, I was at the bar of the Guards restaurant in Georgetown, half way through the prime rib. It sounded a very heavy door being slammed several blocks away. Out on M Street, the lights flickered and went out. It had happened again.

When it exploded, I was at the bar of the Guards restaurant in Georgetown, half way through the prime rib. It sounded a very heavy door being slammed several blocks away. Out on M Street, the lights flickered and went out. It had happened again.

There are foreign postings where such an event would send you running for cover, or dashing out with your camera. Washington isn't one of them. There is lots of violence in America, but not in Georgetown, the Hampstead of the US. Much as I may imagine myself in Saigon c.1968, the closest I come to raw excitement and adventure is when the air conditioning packs up.

But no-one turned a hair as we heard the blast. "Manhole cover," said my friend. "Mmmm," I replied, prodding the steak. In recent months, manhole covers have been exploding in Washington with grim regularity. In February, an explosion blew off three.

In March, three more popped nearer the centre of the city within days of each other.

The Washington Post explained all this at the weekend. "Manhole Explosions Frequent, Unreported," it said. The euphoniously-named Petula Dvorak explained that 20 such incidents have been reported this year, but there were 52 explosions last year.

What we had heard was not, technically, a manhole-cover explosion. It was a fireball that shot from a grating. Electricity workers had been repairing a high-voltage cable, which had caught fire and blown off a manhole cover the previous Sunday, and when the power to the 13,000-volt cable was switched back on, it short-circuited. An older splice in the wire failed, releasing a fireball of energy through the tunnel.

Washington's mayor, Anthony Williams, is a go-getting, Blairite kind of a chap, and when the going gets tough, the tough form a task force.

It seems to have missed the point, focusing over-literally on the manhole covers. "The number one recommendation is that we need to increase inspections of manholes," said Peter LaPorte, director of the Emergency Management Agency. They are looking at manhole covers that won't blow off - either because they are gratings or because they are tied down.

What was not addressed quite so specifically is why they keep leaping into the air in the first place. One would have thought that a series of incredibly violent explosions under the streets of America's capital would create a sense of alarm, but apparently not so.

These things weigh 80 pounds. Eventually a manhole cover will go off with someone important nearby - Senator Jesse Helms, the ageing right-winger perhaps - and someone will get seriously hurt.

Herbert Harris Jr, of Washington's Consumer Utility Board, made the quote of the day: "The Georgetown incident is the unfortunate launching pad for us to look at the integrity of the substructure and systems, especially as we enter this competitive and deregulated environment."

The city is blaming the age of the infrastructure, some of which goes back (gasp) a century. London has been around since the Romans, and if age were the problem then walking through the City would be like crossing a minefield with detonating street furniture turning Cheapside into a scene from Apocalypse Now.

The truth is that Washington is falling to bits. The streets are more carved up than a Thanksgiving Turkey and riddled with potholes; the infrastructure is collapsing and the phone system consists largely of wire strung across alleys and nailed to the wall.

In Europe, this sort of thing was organised by big government departments with stodgy bureaucracies enforcing long, dreary sets of rules and funded by relatively heavy taxation.

This makes Americans groan. It stifles enterprise, they say, and retards innovation. And they are right, in some ways. America is a more dynamic society where things get done quickly and where results matter more than precedent. Taxes are lower and the private sector gets things done however it chooses.

It also means that sometimes when you go out for dinner, you wonder whether you're about to lose a leg.

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