City texts, emails show scramble to handle boil water notice

Austin
boil water - Spencer Cronk

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As major October floods muddied Austin’s reservoirs and clogged its water treatment plants, emails and text messages obtained by KXAN show city officials scrambling to handle the city’s first-ever citywide boil water notice and its repercussions.

The emails, sent between numerous city officials on the day the boil water notice began, show a concerted, exhausting, and, at times, chaotic effort to manage the unfolding emergency.

Oct. 22

With overly silted water drastically slowing water treatment capacity, city officials huddled late into the night on Oct. 21 to consider their options. By the early morning of Oct. 22, city leaders were planning press releases, email blasts and emergency communications to notify Austin of the boil water notice.

The emails started early. At 2:26 a.m. a communications officer with the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management emailed several of the city’s public information offices notifying them of an immediate boil water notice and providing a press release.

By 3:07 a.m. Don Hastings, Assistant Director of Environmental Health Services in the city’s Public Health Department, acknowledged the city’s emergency coordinators had “mobilized late Sunday night” to address the impending situation.

By 4:29 a.m. city officials announced a press conference to every Austin Water Utility employee. At that point, the blitz to inform the public, assess the gravity of the situation and fix the problem was fully underway.

“Austin Water has issued a city-wide boil water notice for all customers of Austin Water. The notice is being issued as the utility works to stabilize the water treatment system. Historic flood waters flowing into our water supply lakes contain very high levels of silt that makes it challenging for the water plants to produce the volume of water needed to supply customers at this time,” said an email from a city spokesman.

Another message to Austin Public Health officials at 7:23 a.m. shows city workers trying to address how to distribute bottled water and city messages to the Austin homeless population.

As city leaders gathered and discussed the situation, Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros emailed city officials about an immediate citywide reduction in water use.

“I want to enact the director authority provisions given the emergency conditions we are experiencing. We are severely limited in capacity and need the public to curb demand so we can fill reservoirs. Thought appeals and boil order would have knocked down demand but not so far,” Meszaros said in a 7:44 a.m. email. “Main thing is make sure any outdoor watering, car washing and other similar discretionary use is stopped.”

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, city workers were working to distribute fresh water, procure food for workers at treatment plants and raise spending limits on city-owned purchase cards to allow for bulk purchases of items like water treatment chemicals, fresh water, food and more.

 “We are not sure how long this event will last, but it will at least be a couple of days. I am requesting an emergency increase to the authorized procards below. I would suggest that each of these procards per transaction limits be set at $50,000 with a maximum amount of at least $100,000 to $200,000,” said one city official in an email. “Please let us know as soon as possible what you might need from us to complete this increase in limits. If you need a emergency declaration, we can provide.” 

At one point, Austin officials fielded an offer from Fort Worth to provide a water tanker truck, according to emails.

Throughout the morning, city public information officers emailed back and forth about how best to message the public.

Just before noon the city’s health department and Mayor Steve Adler messaged about how the boil water notice would affect daycare and food establishments. Adler said he received an email saying one daycare closed over concerns about not being able to use tap water to wash hands.

Further emails between health department workers show some confusion over whether to advise the public to boil water for two or three minutes.

An email from Public Health’s Don Hastings said:

“Environmental Health Services has long used the two minute rolling boil standard to advise our commercial food establishments. The press release we sent, as entitled, is targeted to food establishments, which tend to have trained staff accustomed to follow specific protocols. The three minute standard, on the other hand, reflects a one minute safety margin with the general public in mind. With this as background, and for the sake of simplicity and consistency, EHSD is fine with 3-1-1 providing the 3 minute rolling boil standard to ensure an additional margin of safety.”

As the difficult day progressed, Meszaros got an encouraging email from Daryl Slusher, an assistant director of the Austin Water Utility.

“Had a late night call from Steve [Adler] and [City Manager] Spencer [Cronk] about the boiled water initiative to brainstorm Corpus Christi experience. Basically had to tell them it was an example of everything not to do. Watched the press conference the next day, I thought you all did a beautiful job with all the right experts in the room and everyone with a calm and in control demeanor. Tell Greg he did great despite struggling with a sore throat.”

“It’s been tough miles for us the last few days. The Llano River flooding disrupted the whole Colorado system.”

That afternoon, Meszaros also received an email from a private industry expert Arthur Umble, with the international service company Stantec, offering his firm’s expertise in assisting with the boil water emergency.

“I will be sure to let our team know of the resource availability,” Meszaros said in an email response to Umble at 4:35 p.m. “It’s been tough miles for us the last few days. The Llano River flooding disrupted the whole Colorado system. We’ve experienced sustained raw water turbidities above 400 for 5 days solid and its impacted all three of our lime softening plants simultaneously “Anytime we try and increase output above about 25% of plant capacity we spike turbidity. Sludge handling is a nightmare. We are working through it but hard miles still ahead.”

City of Austin officials held a media briefing about the boil water notice and informed the public early Oct. 22. The night before the notice went into effect, Cronk sent a text message advising “Austin Water will be issuing a precautionary ‘boil order’ later tonight.”

On top of getting the boil water message out and handling treatment capacity, city officials also dealt with a public backlash.

Public fallout

The boil water notice pushed some in the food and grocery industry, including Wheatsville Co-Op executive Dan Gillotte, to temporarily limit services.

“Because we are diligent we reached out to inspectors to understand the possibilities and limitations of running our production for our 2 stores. Their prohibitions on handwashing essentially shut us down and forced us to send dozens of staff home without pay (and for how long)? We can’t pay salaries without being able to produce food,” said Gillotte, in an email to the city manager. 

In a separate email, an advocate for disability access messaged several city officials, including the mayor and city manager, chastising them for failing to provide captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing. 

“The City of Austin is home to the largest deaf population in the State of Texas due to the School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, yet consistently fails to provide the needed translators for emergency Broadcasting,” said John Woodley in an email.

After receiving a citizen concern, the city discussed how there is “no protocol in place to trigger the request for an ASL interpreter for last minute press conferences” and that “the best way for us to move forward will be to meet and discuss about developing that protocol for departments and offices to follow.”

“Why didn’t all city officials do a reverse 911 call to all the residents?”

In an email to every City Council member, a woman identified as Carol B. said she didn’t get the message until noon and was drinking city water throughout the morning.

“My question is why didn’t all city officials do a reverse 911 call to all the residents?” she said. “And, it scares me that what if a more urgent emergency occurs how will you notify residents then, or will you?”

Another woman said she heard about the boil water notice over the internet but was concerned many people would miss the message because they don’t use computers or watch TV.

The City of Austin did not release all communications regarding the boil water notice and sent some of the materials requested by KXAN to the Texas Attorney General for an open records ruling.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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