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Neighborhoods Start Day Off Dry
NW Water Main Breaks, Causing Sinkhole and Many Business Closures

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 22, 2005

A water main break early yesterday sent a wave of confusion and frustration across a wide swath of the District, causing businesses to close, hospitals to turn to emergency water supplies and the fire department to call in extra equipment from Maryland and Virginia.

And many of the thousands of deprived District residents were left longing for a hot shower.

The break in the 36-inch main, which occurred between 4 and 5 a.m. beneath 13th Street and Florida Avenue NW, left a sinkhole big enough to be able to swallow a few motorcycles and buckled the asphalt in several other spots in and around the intersection.

Restaurants and other businesses in nearby Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, part of Dupont Circle and Brookland were hit hard, but it was the five hospitals affected that posed the most urgent concern for authorities.

Children's Hospital, the National Rehabilitation Hospital, Providence Hospital, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Washington Hospital Center had emergency water supplies, but as a precaution, the District did not dispatch ambulances to the hospitals for several hours, according to an Emergency Medical Services spokesman.

Hospital emergency rooms, however, did receive some patients. Washington Hospital Center was on divert status but treated a few walk-ins in the emergency room and had a couple of ambulance transports as well, hospital President James F. Caldas said.

There were no major emergencies related to the break, said Leila Abrar, a spokeswoman for the city Health Department, which stayed in contact with the hospitals, the D.C. fire department and the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority.

As a precaution, pumpers were brought in from Maryland and Virginia to ensure that D.C. firefighters would not be caught without enough water. The trucks were expected to remain in the District for at least another day, said Alan Etter, a D.C. Fire and EMS spokesman.

By 2 p.m., WASA was able to restore service to all the hospitals, General Manager Jerry N. Johnson said. All but a couple of blocks, immediately west of the water main break, were expected to be back online yesterday.

However, a second, smaller main -- this one eight inches in diameter -- ruptured in the same area about 8 p.m. yesterday, according to officials with the D.C. Emergency Management Agency. Repairs were reported underway late last night, officials said. There was no word on how many residences and businesses were affected.

Precisely what caused the breaks was not clear, Johnson said.

WASA workers were waiting for Washington Gas crews to secure a nearby gas line before descending into the ground to inspect the damage to the larger water main and determine what is needed to repair it.

People served by the 36-inch line awoke to find themselves unable to take a shower or make a cup of coffee.

"I flushed the toilet, and it was dry as a desert," said Donald Cooper, 67, who lives in the 1600 block of Euclid Street NW. "I was cursing."

When they realized that they were in for a very dry morning, many people in Cooper's neighborhood bolted to the Safeway on Columbia Road NW in search of bottled water. By noon, the shelves were bare, save for a few dozen bottles of sparkling water. A clerk working the aisle told anxious customers that the storeroom was cleared out, too.

Amanda Wick, 26, was one of those who showed up late, having discovered her dry tap about 5 a.m. only to go back to bed until 11 a.m.

"I was hoping," she said of her belated excursion to the water aisle at Safeway, "but I realize there are too many early birds in this town."

On a sunny day when the neighborhood's cafes and grills would ordinarily be bustling, several businesses in Adams Morgan were forced to lock their doors.

The Starbucks at Adams Mill and Columbia roads posted a sign on its door telling customers it was closed because of the water problem. Burger King on Columbia Road did, too.

On 18th Street, Tryst was trying to make a go of it by selling bottled drinks and baked goods, but business was all but dead. "You really can't run," manager Mike Rosato said. "No coffee? We are a coffee bar."

Back on Columbia Road, the Pizza Hut did not have water, either, according to a man behind the counter, but it was open and serving pizza.

Whether it or any of the other restaurants lacking water should have been open is a question for the Health Department.

Abrar said any restaurant has to have running water to operate. Even in fast-food restaurants that use disposable utensils and food containers, employees have to be able to wash their hands, she said.

"You cannot operate a restaurant without water," she said, and to do so would be a "violation" of the city's health code.

At least one Adams Morgan eatery appeared to have found a way around the water crisis.

Asylum, a restaurant and bar on 18th Street, invested in a water tank a few years ago after one too many interruptions in water service, owner Jim Andrade said.

So while other places were turning people away, Asylum was welcoming customers and serving them on real plates.

"Everything as usual," Andrade said.

Asylum's upstairs neighbor, Joys Nails, didn't have the luxury of a water tank, so it closed, owner The Nguyen said.

"We need water for hands, we need water for feet. We can't do anything," she said after locking up.

Saturday is often her most lucrative day, she said.

Staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company