Hungry for Power in Georgetown

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The nation's capital is getting an uncomfortable lesson in how a power crisis can bring urban life to a grinding halt. And that lesson's being delivered in historic Georgetown, the city's most exclusive residential and commercial section--and, for the moment, its most powerless.

A 40-square-block swath near the Potomac River was without power Friday, the second full day of a blackout caused by an underground fire that sent smoke billowing out of manholes and forced police to reroute commuter traffic and cordon off streets normally crowded with thousands of weekend visitors.

The blackout follows a spate of power-related woes that have plagued Washington neighborhoods for months: from raging fires in electric cables to underground explosions that have hurtled iron manhole covers into the air like flattened cannonballs.

Portable generators droned all day Friday in the breezeless 80-degree heat along M Street, the main artery where French restaurants and art galleries were left shuttered by the power loss. On residential streets where diplomats and lobbyists live, the quiet was broken by the thunder of jackhammers. While emergency crews dug into the asphalt to reach charred cables, weekend soirees were endangered as canapes spoiled, newly styled hair wilted and genteel tempers frayed.

"I've never been through a rolling blackout, but this seems just as bad," said Juan Cameron, a Georgetown resident who was expecting 150 guests for the weekend wedding of his daughter.

Cameron, who intended to have a wedding "no matter what," found himself unable to promise caterers, tent suppliers, bartenders and a rock band that they would have the electricity they needed when they showed up for tonight's ceremony.

"My daughter's in tears, and my wife hasn't slept the last two nights. How could it get any worse?" Cameron moaned.

It could. Potomac Electric Power Co. officials were promising electricity would be restored to 1,600 residences and businesses by midday today. But their best-case scenario appeared to falter as intermittent rainstorms Friday night pounded Washington, flooding Georgetown's open manholes. Power crews had to abandon their underground repairs on live cables, fearing electrocution. More rain was predicted for today.

"If the manholes fill with water, we could get further delays," said Robert Dobkin, a PEPCO spokesman. Dobkin cautioned that if rain persists, some sections of Georgetown could be without power until early next week. The cause of the fire responsible for the blackout still was undetermined, Dobkin said.

The Georgetown outage has proved to be indiscriminate--as sudden and as randomly ruthless as any California power failure, affecting the low and the mighty alike.

Homeless people who normally duck into M Street's coffee shops and ice cream parlors to get a blast of chilled air instead sweltered out on the sidewalks. Candlelight that normally is a romantic prop at Citronelle, one of the district's top restaurants, instead became a midday necessity for the few workers who showed up.

"We're losing 100 reservations a night," sighed maitre d' Christopher Whaley as he sipped a chilled German riesling in the darkened restaurant. The only other light besides the candle on his table came from Citronelle's prized wine cellar, where racks of expensive wines were cooled by 60 bags of dry ice.

Down the street, Jordan's Queen Rania, who had settled in with an entourage of diplomats at the posh Four Seasons hotel, fled to cooler quarters downtown at the Ritz-Carlton when the Georgetown inn's air-conditioning quit.

"We're all trying to make the best of it," sighed Tricia Messerschmitt, a Four Seasons spokeswoman who, like the hotel's remaining guests, was cooled Friday by air-conditioning hooked up to a monstrous generator brought in by flatbed truck.

Most guests in the hotel's 260 rooms stayed put after the hall lights winked off and the central air-conditioning conked out. Messerschmitt declined to comment on the queen's departure, citing "security concerns." But she noted archly that the Ritz-Carlton, her hotel's downtown rival, "still had empty rooms to spare. We were booked solid."

The Four Seasons' generator cost $20,000--a fraction of the $250,000 in expected losses the hotel plans to bill PEPCO. "I expect they'll be hearing from a lot of people," Messerschmitt said.

Few people in Georgetown seemed to have a good word for the utility firm, despite that PEPCO promised more than 25,000 pounds of dry ice in an attempt to cool things off.

"I don't get it. They restore power a day after a big hurricane. Why are we still in the dark?" asked Cameron, stewing over the $5,000 he plans to shell out for a portable generator to keep his daughter Nora's wedding plans afloat. "The city's blaming the power company. The power company blames the city. All I know is, it doesn't look like we're going to have power on the day when we need it the most."

The grumbling echoed Californians' current public suspicions about utility companies, even though their problems are vastly different: California's power woes ensued after the state's massive deregulation of its utilities; Washington's problem is the corroding cables that lie beneath Georgetown's streets.

In each case, however, power companies are taking most of the heat. "I doubt you'll find much sympathy for PEPCO around here," said Hank Wernonen, a Georgetown consultant who still had power and had invited a heat-frazzled neighbor over for dinner. "They pretty much have run out of excuses."

PEPCO has been upgrading its underground wiring over the last 20 years, Dobkin said, sending its crews in wherever new subway line and commercial construction allows them to cut into the street and replace old cables. The utility expects that a full overhaul of Georgetown's cables, starting later this summer, will solve the problems.

But because Georgetown fought against a Metro subway line and has protected its 18th and 19th century homes from overdevelopment, "we never had the opportunity to go in and do the work," Dobkin said.

The result, in recent months, was a series of startling incidents on Georgetown streets. Explosions shot at least three manhole grates into the air, set off either by deteriorating cables or what Dobkin described as a lightning-like arc of electricity.

While Dobkin acknowledged that PEPCO had not "been able to get around" to renovating Georgetown's underground wiring, he cited the "corrosive" effect of salt and other chemicals used to melt snow and ice in the winter. District officials insist that the effect is minimal compared with PEPCO's delay in rewiring Georgetown.

As blame was passed around Friday, visitors and residents alike wandered Georgetown's wide-open streets as yellow-helmeted work crews poked into manholes. People stood, frozen, at the doors of their favorite stores.

"Closed," read one sign, "until THEY get their act together."

Sweating in the heat, Rob Bennett stood longingly with his wife and two daughters outside a closed ice cream parlor. Visiting from Ohio, they had not expected to walk in on a crisis.

Friends had told the Bennetts that Georgetown was the perfect place for a stroll after several days of touring the nation's capital. Instead, they were hemmed in by police tape. They had to step out of the way of emergency workers rushing by them. Doors were closed. Cables and extension cords snaked over the sidewalks. People looked hot and angry. There was no ice cream anywhere.

"It just shows you," Bennett said as his daughters tugged at his shirt, "a problem's got to hit you square in the face before you do something about it. You think this will get their attention?"

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