NEW YORK (Reuters) - Record snowfall is turning the city's mean streets even meaner, with 65 manholes exploding or catching fire since New Years, a utility spokesman said on Friday.
With snow piled six feet high for the past month, huge ice chunks raining down on congested intersections and street corners turned into frigid wading pools, flying manhole covers are yet another symptom of winter's wrath.
In the most recent serious case, a fireball erupting from a manhole in Brooklyn this week engulfed an SUV that had been parked over the opening only moments before.
The owner, a former Marine, said the scene was more like something he would have expected to see in Iraq.
"God gave me a second chance," said the veteran after he viewed the burned-out wreckage of the car he parked a short while earlier. It was one of three explosions on the same block that day.
On New Years Day, a manhole blew in Manhattan's West Village, sending a 15-foot column of flames into the air. A passerby filmed the spectacle and posted it on YouTube.
Other incidents were not so entertaining.
On January 3, a pair of East Harlem manhole fires spiked carbon monoxide levels at the Shield Institute, a center for people with developmental disabilities, forcing an evacuation and closing several blocks. Some 75 handicapped clients waited it out on buses before being transferred to another facility.
On January 18, manhole fires forces evacuations of homes in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.
So what's going on? In a word: winter.
Consolidated Edison, which supplies power to the five boroughs of New York City and Westchester, pointed to a mix of salt, spread on the roads during storms, and melting snow or ice as the culprit. When salty water contacts a corroded cable or underground utility box, fire or explosion can result.
"It's a seasonal issue," said spokesman Chris Olert, noting corrosive salty water seeps to the lowest point underground, where power equipment is often located. "Manholes are like utility closets for our crews who work on equipment."
The utility giant said there have been 65 manhole incidents since January 1, nearly a score of them in the last four days alone. Olert compared that with 21 incidents in January 2009, and just 10 a year ago.
This past month has been the snowiest January in New York history.
"There's a direct correlation between the volume that goes onto the city streets and these incidents," Olert said.
Apart from praying for an early spring, as promised by groundhogs everywhere, ConEd said it is converting some of its 264,000 manhole covers, currently solid, to vented ones, so gasses can escape and pressure is lessened.
Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Jerry Norton