The typical scene of busy shoppers and diners on M Street and Wisconsin Avenue was rudely interrupted when an underground explosion sent a manhole flying at least 10 feet in the air in front of J. Paul’s restaurant on M Street Wednesday evening. Select Georgetown community members were informed of the event through the Emergency Alert Systems recently instituted in trial runs.

People by the epicenter immediately smelled natural gas following the 4:40 p.m. blast. To prevent the possible dangers of a natural gas explosion, D.C. police officials organized the evacuation of three businesses and closed M Street from Wisconsin Avenue to the Key Bridge.

Although D.C. fire officials’ measurements indicated a strong presence of gas in the air, it is still not known whether the blast or the gas leak occurred first. Washington Gas workers successfully vented the gas and later found the source of the leak, a damaged three-fourths-inch ventilation pipe. The damaged pipe was located approximately 20 to 30 feet away from the explosion and it is still unclear what may have ignited the pipe.

The explosion resulted in traffic jams that held up commuters by several hours, especially because of the still-unplowed conditions of many Georgetown-area roads.

“We still have a couple of streets up here that need work or haven’t been plowed yet,” D.C. Transportation Director Dan Tangherlini said in a Feb. 20 Washington Post article. “We needed this like a hole in the head.”

Luckily, most of the campus community was not directly affected by the blast, as no Georgetown utilities had to be shut off.

The D.C. Emergency Management Agency used the Roam Secure Alert Network, a new communications program designed to provide community-wide communication in the event of an emergency, to transmit messages informing and updating members of the Emergency Alert System about the incident.

Justin Wagner (COL ’03), who served as an administrator for the project during his tenure as ANC representative in District 2E, thought this was the perfect example of how the system can be advantageous in emergency management.

“It was one of the first really solid applications of it [the system],” Wagner said. “Students were getting instant feedback. It made a difference – yesterday in the ICC there were tons of professors who didn’t show up because of traffic on M Street, and students were getting messages on their cell phones explaining what happened.”

Wagner is a member of THE HOYA editorial board.

Citizens registered as part of the alert system choose an electronic form of communication, including cell phone, e-mail, blackberry, pagers or palm pilots, from which to receive messages. The system has the capability of disseminating tens of thousands of announcements in less than two minutes.

A message sent out approximately one hour after the blast, for instance, concisely provided information on the M Street situation.

“DC Fire reports two manhole fires 3200 block M St, NW. Pepco enroute to site. MPD states closing block diverting traffic onto Wisc Ave, NW. Va is closing eastbound traffic on Key Bridge. EMA rep is on site. Pepco states no customers load has been affected,” the notification read.

Subsequent messages updated network members as to traffic and safety conditions.

Manhole explosions, unfortunately, are nothing new to the Georgetown area. In a strange coincidence, it was exactly three years ago that six manholes flew nearly 30 feet into the air on M Street, shattering several storefront windows and ripping up the pavement. It also created an incentive to update Georgetown’s utilities, resulting in a $40 million construction project that is scheduled to end in the summer of 2005.

“The major explosion of 2000 forced the city to send Washington Gas and Pepco underground to modernize wires and utilities,” Wagner said. “Some of the stuff under there was from the 1800s; since Georgetown never had a metro, we never updated our utilities processes.”

“Yesterday’s blast and gas leak occurred on the same block where Washington Gas completed a 200-foot section of work on the south side of the street two weeks ago,” the Washington Post article reported.

Students interested in registering for a personal emergency alert account, free of charge, can get more information at www.gtownalert.com.

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