- The Washington Times - Monday, August 13, 2001

Thousands of people and businesses in Dupont Circle yesterday carried on amid the damage caused by a powerful storm and a series of fiery underground explosions.
Four manhole covers were blown into the air while diners were enjoying quiet meals in the city's restaurant district Saturday night.
Most business owners along the 1600 block of 17th Street in Northwest, where the explosions occurred, counted financial damages in lost sales and spoiled merchandise yesterday as they watched Potomac Electric Power Co. crews begin restoring power and repairing the underground cables that were destroyed by the blasts.
"We might as well call it a day," deliveryman Bob Lewis told a flower vendor while Pepco crews worked on 17th Street, which police closed to car traffic from Q to R Street. That stretch of road may still be closed today. Abdoul Coul, the flower vendor, agreed. "No people are coming," he said.
Things may be getting back to normal, though, as electricity was restored to most customers last night and a flash-flood watch originally scheduled through 8 a.m. today was canceled.
After more than 24 hours without power, utility crews restored electricity to some 3,000 residents and businesses around Dupont Circle at 11:30 p.m. last night.
Pepco officials say a week of heavy electrical use because of the heat combined with yesterday's torrential rains may have caused the explosions.
The line of thunderstorms swept through the area Saturday afternoon, knocking out power to about 20,000 homes and shops in the District, Maryland and parts of Virginia — and stranding motorists in swamped cars.
Commuters face the same threat this morning. Weather forecasters predicted more torrents of rain would pass through the region last night and early today, with rain falling at a rate of more than 2 inches an hour.
As of late last night, 1,600 Pepco customers in Prince George's County and parts of Montgomery County still had no power, along with several thousand in Northern Virginia.
Flooding created a number of bizarre sights.
A sinkhole opened in a Safeway parking lot on MacArthur Boulevard in Northwest on Saturday evening and swallowed an employee's car.
Yesterday, a clerk at Blockbuster Video at 17th and P streets walked on top of crates to serve customers because the floor was under 9 inches of water.
Residents living near Dupont Circle wandered the streets, or sat in front of their homes, waiting for Pepco to restore power. Others took matters into their own hands and went looking for flashlights, batteries and tarps.
John Spalding, who owns True Value Hardware on 17th — one of the few stores open on the block yesterday — said about 300 customers came into his store in the first three hours he opened for business. "We've never seen anything like this," he said.
Down the street, April Beander was among a group of residents sitting outside her apartment building, watching the repair crews work. Miss Beander said she could hardly wait for her home to be lighted and air-conditioned.
"The repairmen need to hurry up because this is miserable for us," she said. "I'm just praying it won't rain again."
Tom Dent, another resident, agreed. "You hear about things like this happening all the time in Georgetown, but to have something like this happen here, it's totally shocking," he said.
For more than a year, several manholes have been blown into the air by underground explosions.
Pepco spokesman Robert Dobkin said yesterday crews expected to restore electricity to the neighborhood by 9 p.m., but it could be early today before all 2,800 Dupont Circle customers who lost power get their electricity back because new storms could force Pepco crews to stop work in some places.
Pepco officials are still investigating the cause of the four explosions, one of which witnesses said could be felt a block away.
Company officials believe the blasts were caused by overheated electrical units getting drenched by the two days of heavy rain.
"The weather is a good bet," Mr. Dobkin said.
The explosions along the 1600 block of 17th Street occurred between 7 and 8 p.m. Saturday, just as neighborhood restaurants and streets were beginning to fill up with patrons.
Michael Krench, who co-owns the Mercury Grill restaurant, was among the scores of people who witnessed the fiery blasts.
Mr. Krench said yesterday he saw smoke billowing from four manholes on the street in front of his restaurant for about 15 minutes before the covers blew off several feet into the air.
A series of explosions followed, sending up flames and plumes of thick black smoke for hours.
"It just looked like an inferno," Mr. Krench said as he sat outside his restaurant yesterday afternoon. "It got a little scary."
A similar scene played out Saturday in Baltimore, within earshot of the Inner Harbor. Six explosions — three in the early morning and three in the late afternoon — blew manhole covers into the air.

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