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Day after power outage, disarray lingers

About a dozen businesses were still relying on portable generators for their electricity Tuesday, a day after an underground explosion knocked out power in downtown Clearwater.

As the cleanup continued, business owners generally seemed more worried about any damage done to their electrical equipment by power surges than about having to use the generators.

"It just complicates my life more than I expected," said David Ring, the building and grounds chairman at the Christian Science Reading Room, which lost a fax machine. "I was expecting a couple of faxes from plumbers. The best I can do is have them drop it in the mail."

Progress Energy expected to restore regular electrical service to everyone early this morning.

Meanwhile, questions remained about what caused the underground fire and explosion that shut off power to 100 downtown businesses.

The 4 a.m. fire began in an electrical wire below an alley that runs between Cleveland and Pierce streets. It caused an explosion that hurled a manhole cover on S Fort Harrison Avenue into the air and smashed several windows and the facade of a Church of Scientology building classroom.

Most of the 100 customers who lost their electricity after the fire were restored by 8:55 a.m Monday, said Aaron Perlut, Progress Energy spokesman. That afternoon and evening, the utility connected to generators the dozen or so remaining customers on the block of Cleveland bounded by S Fort Harrison Avenue, Pierce Street and S Osceola Avenue.

The utility finished replacing the wires that had caught fire and shut off the electricity to the customers by 1 a.m. Tuesday, Perlut said. But the customers weren't expected to be reconnected to the power grid before 11 p.m. Tuesday, he said.

The utility planned to return all customers to the grid by 2 a.m. today, he said.

Progress Energy is still investigating the power failure. But on Tuesday Perlut reaffirmed Progress Energy's original theory: The electrical wire that caught fire had a short circuit that may have been caused by normal wear and tear, overheating or an animal, Perlut said.

The fire ignited methane gas from the sewer system, triggering the explosion, he said.

Perlut said Progress Energy workers often encounter flammable methane gas in underground utility vaults. But city officials questioned that theory.

"There's also naturally occurring methane in the ground," said Andy Neff, public utilities director for the city of Clearwater. "I'd be interested in the results of any investigation that Progress Energy may take."

The city has spent $17.5-million to upgrade the sewer system since 1999, said Dave Sickler, wastewater collection superintendent for the city of Clearwater.

In August 2002 the city inspected all the sewer lines downtown, including the one below the manhole where the explosion occurred.

It had no defects and it's unlikely that any have crept up since then, he said.