Library Repair Could Hit $20 Million

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 3, 2007

Rebuilding the fire-ravaged Georgetown public library could cost between $15 million and $20 million, a sum that D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty yesterday committed to allocating without delay so that the doors can reopen "as quickly as possible."

Fenty (D) has drafted emergency legislation to direct all excess revenue in fiscal 2007 and 2008 toward the library and historic Eastern Market, which also was hit by a three-alarm blaze Monday. One city official estimated yesterday that as much as $80 million could be made available.

"It's important that there not be any gap in the reconstruction" of either site, Fenty declared.

As officials continued to assess damage to the library -- taking stock of the branch's contents as well as to the Georgian-style building -- they had good news about the Peabody Collection that documents Georgetown's past through extensive records, maps, photos, books and clippings.

Perhaps 80 percent of the collection, housed on the library's east side, suffered far less harm than initially feared. The ceiling there held, and the archives escaped smoke and flames.

"The material is wet but not burned," Ginnie Cooper, chief librarian for the city, said against the backdrop of a charred and partially collapsed second-floor roofline. "We can deal with wet."

The mayor, Cooper and other city leaders toured that devastated upper floor yesterday afternoon after recounting the fire department's response. Inexplicably, the department was not immediately called when flames broke out about noon, and by the time crews arrived, the roof was engulfed and starting to cave in, Chief Dennis L. Rubin said.

Firefighters had other problems once they reached the library, at Wisconsin Avenue and R Street NW. The two closest fire hydrants were not working, forcing them to pull water from two blocks away. Officials later revealed that more than 50 hydrants across the city are not in working order. But firefighter union officials warned there are probably more, because hydrants often aren't tested until a fire breaks out.

The department has not determined how the fire started but said it is focusing on an accidental cause, possibly electrical. Electrical problems also are suspected in the fire at the Eastern Market, which destroyed 13 businesses inside the landmark on Capitol Hill. Hydrants at that scene were working.

Fenty labeled the hydrant issue a "huge priority" and said the city will work with the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, the quasi-independent agency responsible for maintaining them. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) requested a congressional hearing on the matter.

"There is ample reason to be concerned that the problem in Georgetown may not be an isolated one," Davis wrote to Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. In a subsequent interview, Davis said he wanted to determine whether the District needed federal help in providing regular inspections and maintenance of its 9,300 hydrants.

City leaders dismissed the need for such assistance in unequivocal terms yesterday. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who represents Georgetown, tartly urged Congress to attend instead to national concerns. Separately, he and colleague Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said they would ask for a council review of the hydrants' condition and WASA operations.

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