Police received calls around 8:49 a.m. reporting that manhole covers had been blown off at the an intersection in the heart of the downtown district, said department spokesman Gene Harley. About an hour later, firefighters had put out three separate fires where the covers blew off.
"I didn't see it happen, but I heard an explosion and then black smoke started billowing out of the ground from the manhole covers," said city spokesman Bret Bell, who was about a block away at City Hall.
The fire department sprayed foam to cool down the affected areas. It would likely be four to six hours before crews could get underground to begin investigating what caused the explosions, Georgia Power spokeswoman Swann Seiler said.
The utility expected power to be restored for some parts of downtown within a few hours while the core of the area affected was likely to be without electricity until morning, she said. The area includes a mix of businesses and homes, but Seiler was unsure how many.
In August, an underground electrical fire just blocks away also spewed smoke through manhole covers and cut off power downtown. That problem, Seiler said, was caused by a fault in the underground network system.
Georgia Power was in the second year of a five-year upgrade in the underground power network downtown, Seiler said.
"I think this will probably trigger some sort of larger public discussion," Bell said. "I think the public will want to know exactly what Georgia Power is doing."
Police evacuated shoppers and pedestrians after the explosion but allowed business owners and employees to stay behind to secure their shops. Harley said City Hall employees were sent home for the day and authorities were encouraging businesses to do the same. Some of the larger hotels were operating on emergency generators, Bell said.
Extra police were brought in to help close the area to traffic.
The affected area includes River Street, the site of many of Savannah's tourist attractions, shops and restaurants.
"We are very fortunate that, in this high traffic area, with three manhole covers coming up, there were no injuries and relatively no property damage," Seiler said, adding that the only damage immediately noticeable aboveground was several broken windows.