After the Cafritz Blaze, D.C. Officials Must Bolster the City's Water System

Saturday, August 1, 2009

IF ANY MORE evidence were needed that something is intolerably wrong with the District's ability to extinguish major fires, it was furnished Wednesday evening by the blaze that destroyed the home of Peggy Cooper Cafritz, former president of the D.C. Board of Education. In the smoldering shadow of Mrs. Cafritz's Northwest mansion, neighbors and firefighters let it be known that the water pressure had been insufficient to put out the flames.

For the city, there is a chilling sense of deja vu in this. In the past two years, major fires have destroyed Eastern Market; the historic Georgetown library; a condominium building in Adams Morgan; and now the Cafritz home, along with its important art collection. The causes, circumstances and challenges of each of those fires were different. But not for the first time, in the aftermath of the Cafritz inferno, D.C. fire officials and the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) are trading blame. Once again, questions are being raised about the upkeep and serviceability of the city's fire hydrants. Once again, a Washington landmark lies in ruins. And once again, D.C. residents are justifiably left to wonder whether the city, its agencies and its infrastructure are minimally competent to handle a basic urban function.

Like other American cities, Washington confronts serious problems arising from aging infrastructure, including pipes that, in some cases, are a century old. In addition to the $3 billion in capital spending to improve WASA infrastructure scheduled over the next decade, experts have estimated an additional $1 billion will be needed to bring the water and sewer system up to modern standards.

Still, other cities with similarly daunting infrastructure problems have not faced such confidence-sapping firefighting failures. Other cities have not suffered the indignity of having suburban jurisdictions rush tanker trucks of water -- usually reserved for firefighting in rural areas -- to the scene of conflagrations in heavily populated neighborhoods, as Montgomery County did during Wednesday's fire.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) is right to discourage finger-pointing and to press for a full investigation of what went wrong in this latest tragedy. We do not prejudge the causes. But city residents deserve answers to troubling questions: If water pressure is adequate throughout the city, as WASA has suggested in the past, why did Mrs. Cafritz's neighbors -- and others in other neighborhoods -- report that it was insufficient both before and during the fire? Has the effort to replace and modernize several thousand fire hydrants around the city, launched in the wake of the 2007 apartment fire in Adams Morgan, been effective? Given WASA's initial suggestion that firefighters at the Cafritz home had drawn too heavily off one water main (and given that WASA personnel were present at the fire), is coordination between WASA and the fire department sufficient?

Finally, here's the big question: What will the mayor, WASA and fire officials do to reassure residents that all steps are being taken to correct flaws in management, technology, infrastructure so that residents of the District can rest easier about the fire next time?

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