The fire at M’s Pub has deprived Omaha, for some time to come, of a landmark historical building in the heart of its bustling Old Market.
According to investigators, the fire sparked after a Minnesota fiber optics installer struck a natural gas line near 11th and Howard Streets.
But troubles finding and shutting off the correct natural gas line as the fire raged may have contributed to how much was lost, officials say.
Firefighters couldn’t put out the fire until the gas was shut off, and that took more than 70 minutes after the first local utility worker arrived.
Metropolitan Utilities District CEO Scott Keep has defended the length of time it took his crews to shut off the gas, calling it reasonable and acceptable. But it’s hard for many Omahans to believe that this wait was either reasonable or acceptable.
MUD owes the owners and tenants and the public utility’s ratepayer-owners an explanation of that delay. It can do better.
MUD officials told The World-Herald that they are reviewing their emergency response and valve abandonment procedures.
They also are working out a process to check the region’s abandoned gas valves and say they’re striving to improve response times.
These are important, appreciated steps.
Another key move comes from Nebraska Public Service Commissioner Crystal Rhoades. She persuaded her fellow commissioners to determine how much damage contractors may have caused working near underground utility lines statewide.
The state should know how often these accidents happen, why and whether existing maps of service lines are accurate. The state also needs to know how its rules are followed and enforced.
Disaster preparedness nationally has improved since 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Governments, utilities and businesses all practice more. The public understandably expects more, too.
MUD’s fire response exposed some holes in the utility’s disaster preparation. Those need to be identified and addressed. Certainly, the utility needs to know whether its maps of natural gas lines are up to date and accurate.
Because fires happen. And they tend to happen more often in historic districts where old buildings can burn faster and more often than new.
The scale of the Old Market’s loss — a $1 million building, its contents and so much history — warrants the best preparation possible by MUD and further study by the utility and the state.
The public should reasonably expect utilities to be ready the next time firefighters need a gas line turned off in an emergency.