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On the Front Lines of a Cold War
By Debbi Wilgoren Washington Post Staff Writer Wednesday, December 27, 2000; Page B01
Jesse Burke donned the same clothes yesterday that he wore on Christmas and Christmas Eve. Two sweat shirts. Two knit caps. Two pairs of D.C. government-issue coveralls -- one insulated. Two pairs of socks, a pair of steel-toed work boots and, over them, a pair of tall, yellow rubber ones. Two pairs of gloves.
The layers keep him from freezing while he repairs water main breaks for the District of Columbia. Business is heaviest on the coldest days of the year, and each job means hours of working on frozen and flooded streets and sidewalks.
"We're moving. We're generating body heat," Burke, 41, said when asked whether he would need to thaw out after his 121/2-hour shift ended at midnight. "I drink cold stuff all day long. Don't get cold hands or nothing."
Burke, who has worked for the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority for five years, was standing at a water main break on South Dakota Avenue NE near 10th Street, waiting to learn the exact location of buried power lines near the broken pipe so his crew could begin digging.
Grayish water rushed down the flooded sidewalk and coursed through the gutter, leaving a frosting of frozen slush on the grass and a necklace of icicles on the yellow tape blocking the area from pedestrians.
Burke's breath made white clouds as he spoke. The temperature was a biting 28 degrees.
Such frigid conditions often lead to water main breaks, which are leaks or ruptures that happen when old, corroded underground pipes cannot withstand the constriction that expanding, frozen earth puts them through under extreme conditions.
During cold snaps like the one that has enveloped the area for the last couple of weeks, four to 15 water main breaks a day are reported in the District.
Seventeen breaks were reported in the city from Friday to last night, officials said, with scores more in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. None was reported to have caused major problems, but officials warned that the water and ice that result can be dangerous.
One rupture, in the Landmark Mall parking lot Saturday night, complicated things for last-minute Christmas shoppers.
"It's not just an inconvenience; it's also a safety issue for motorists and pedestrians," Alexandria police spokeswoman Amy Bertsch said. "It can make a real mess."
In the District, repair crews work an extra four hours each shift in freezing weather, earning time and a half, and often take on six or even seven shifts a week. Practically every shift includes repairing one break. Some days, a crew can squeeze in two.
"The hardest part is finding the leak. Once you find the leak, you can take care of it," said Russell Lyles, 52, a 32-year repair veteran who worked Saturday and Sunday but stayed home on Christmas.
He was back on the job yesterday on South Dakota Avenue with Burke and Darian Mathis, 35. They arrived in early afternoon and set up orange cones and a big diamond-shaped sign that said "ROAD WORK AHEAD."
Then they donned their extra layers and got lucky.
Burke took a metal rod and pushed it through the water and down through the ground, where a section of the concrete sidewalk had been washed away, until he located the eight-inch main. Using an amplifying device, he and his colleagues listened to water rushing through the pipe, moving from location to location until they heard a roaring sound that meant they had found the leak.
On most jobs, they have to drill through concrete to get the rod into the ground, and pinpointing the leak can take hours. This time, it took less than 20 minutes.
After that, there was little to do but wait for Miss Utility to show up. That's the regionwide service that can tell the crew where the power and gas lines are buried, so workers can dig down to the water main without disturbing them.
The service was renamed something else a while back, Water and Sewer Authority spokeswoman Libby Lawson said, because a D.C. Council member said she found the "Miss Utility" title offensive.
But no one remembers the new name. Everyone just says they're waiting for Miss Utility.
Marking time along with the three-person Water and Sewer Authority crew was backhoe driver Mario Jones, a giant of a man who learned to operate a backhoe growing up on a farm in Georgia and has done it for the city for 16 years.
Miss Utility arrived just after 5 p.m., and Jones got ready to dig.
After he cleared a four-foot trench around the leak, Burke, Lyles and Mathis faced working into the night to repair the broken pipe. A different crew would be called in to put a temporary patch on the sidewalk.
While they waited and then worked to repair their break, at least three more were reported. Officials said other crews had been dispatched to begin repairs.
Staff writers Manuel Perez-Rivas and Josh White contributed to this report.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company
-- Sally Strackbein (Sally@SallysKitchen.com), December 26, 2000