Well, I’ll say this for the city of Asheville: it might just be the worst Christmas gift-giver ever.
Whoever thought a prolonged, poorly explained water outage that affected tens of thousands of customers during the height of the holidays, followed by muddled messaging and a delayed press conference, would be just the right present to put under Asheville’s tree, clearly has a skewed perspective on the season.
Yes, the word “debacle” comes to mind.
I’m not alone in that assessment, and my main inconvenience has been not being able to swim at the Reuter YMCA in Biltmore Park. Some folks in South Asheville and southern Buncombe County have been without water for four or five days.
Businesses have been forced to close, including restaurants that should be making a lot of money right now. Out-of-town guests have left (OK, that may be welcome in some cases). Grocery stores have been cleaned out of bottled water. Elderly folks are struggling to find water.
Sure, Ukraine has it a lot worse right now, but they’ve lost their water because Vladimir Putin is a psychotic jerk. We’ve lost ours because it got real cold.
So you can imagine that folks have not been kind to the city on its handling of this mess. After an Asheville City Government Facebook post and follow-up comment Wednesday night, which said in part, “We anticipate that everyone will have water in 48 hours …” and that the city appreciates folks’ patience, residents went off.
“Patience? Eat glass,” Katie Jalbert Kelley wrote.
“Welcome to day 4 of another 24 to 48 hours,” P.J. Glenn chipped in.
Beth Parham Plisko noted that “people’s patience is running a bit thin. My elderly parents traveled to Haywood County today and filled up water jugs and took showers. I see they got the Airport up and running but the Candler area is still out. Unacceptable.”
Several commented about a press conference Dec. 28 in which city officials noted they had a training exercise about a month ago that went over a similar outage scenario.
“They ‘had training’ but CLEARLY, that’s NOT the case,” Ryan Dan commented. “It was like a skit from a comedy show saying they were prepared, but most of the county STILL doesn’t have water, bathrooms weren’t set up, water collection points were NOT created.”
To be fair, in an update posted at 9 a.m. Thursday morning, the city did not repeat the now-infamous “24-48 hour” restoration time.
“We anticipate that everyone will have water in 36 hours,” the city stated. “Some may have water sooner than others depending on their location in reference to the treatment facility.”
Three days to hold a press conference?
Like many of you, I’ve followed the city’s communications to the public, and also like you, I’ve been, well let’s say, nonplussed. Mostly I’ve been nonplussed that this all started on Christmas Eve and blew up on Christmas day, and it took the city three days to hold a daggone press conference.
During that time, it wasn’t clear what exactly was causing the outage, how long it would take to get it fixed, what folks with emergency situations should do, or even what the “south Asheville” water facility was. (For crying out loud, just call it the Mills River water plant. I think terrorists can find it if they really want to.)
What’s clear to me from this whole mess is that the city and the Water Department just did not have a good handle on what was causing the loss in pressure or outages, or at least exactly where they were. I also suspect with it being a holiday, key players were not in place early on to get that handle.
To be clear, I have no criticism of the actual work crews out there fixing broken pipes in frigid temperatures. Those folks are heroes, and I thank them.
I’m talking about the administrative response here. I asked to interview Water Department Director David Melton but instead received an email from a public information officer.
I did speak to Mayor Esther Manheimer Thursday. I asked if she wished they had held a press conference earlier.
“Yes,” she told me. “I think what I have learned through this process is that until you have a system in place that guarantees you can communicate instantaneously with every customer affected, you’ve got to use every tool in your toolbox to communicate with folks.”
Manheimer said the city has a goal to put in place a notification system similar to other utilities, such as Duke Energy, that can notify customers very quickly about outages and provide reliable estimates on restoration of service. But that will require a couple of years of work and involve centralized leak detection technology that’s not in place right now.
Manheimer acknowledges that the current detection system needs work, and that it took too long for the city to realize just how serious the Christmas water outage was going to be.
“I think we do need to improve the real-time communications system,” Manheimer told me. “I think the expectation is that a water system’s utility match what people experience from their power company or their cable company. We have got work to do to move to that kind of a real-time communications system.”
The city relies on its app, website, and the “AVL Alerts,” which Manheimer says is a good system, although if folks aren’t signed up for it they don’t get messages.
“But ideally we have a metering system that gives us real-time information about outages down to the individual residence level, and we’re able to communicate with people fairly instantaneously when an outage occurs,” Manheimer said. “The bad news is we’re obviously not there at this moment in time.”
She said that work has been funded and is in progress, “but as noted, that’s a couple of years from completion.
So, what exactly happened?
Low Temperatures, High Demand
To be fair, the temperatures at Christmas were historically low, hovering around zero at night and in the single digits for a few nights.
The city did start sending alerts fairly early, including one at 12:30 p.m. on Dec. 26. But that just asked users to conserve water and said, “The extremely low temperatures and high water demand continues to place an unusual strain on the City of Asheville’s water distribution system.”
By 10 p.m. that day, the city sent a more serious alert stating, “Due to extremely cold temperatures, the City of Asheville’s Water Resources Department has been experiencing disruptions in the distribution system, including water line breaks. You may notice fluctuations in water pressure, no water, and/or discolored water. The water department crews have been continuously working on these concerns since December 24.”
So again, the problems started Christmas Eve, and that first press conference didn’t happen until noon on Dec. 28.
It featured Manheimer, Melton, and Asheville Fire Department Chief Scott Burnette.
While it offered the best explanation of what had happened, it also contained a couple of real clangers from Melton. That included this nugget in response to a reporter’s question about whether they were prepared, as the cold snap was well forecast:
“We were prepared,” Melton said. “Almost a month ago we went through our incident command training, which is tabletop training, so we were prepared for the event. You always prepare because you don’t know what’s going to happen, right? So we went through that whole process with our whole team.”
“But precisely? No, we did not know this was going to happen,” Melton added.
Yeah, um, you clearly were not prepared, or the water wouldn’t still be out five days later.
On the explanation front, I’ll summarize the officials: On Dec. 24, the city started noticing water pressure drops, and suspected breaks were occurring. Realizing its existing water facilities weren’t meeting demand, the Water Department turned to its “South Asheville” location, which is actually on the Mills River in Henderson County.
Melton said intakes at that facility were frozen over, and they couldn’t bring it online to help meet demand. Ultimately, Melton said, the city discovered “about a dozen larger breaks” in its own lines (the city has almost 1,700 miles of water line), as well as numerous sizable leaks in private customer and residential lines. Some of those leaks were unattended, as businesses were closed or people out of town.
So, at a time of very high water usage because of the holidays, a whole lot of water was leaking out of the system. The city typically runs at about 50 percent of its rated capacity, so usually it has no trouble meeting demand.
But a combination of broken or frozen lines, and the Mills River plant not being usable as a backup, created the crisis.
Mills River outage ‘not of immediate concern’
Initially, officials didn’t view Mills River being down as critical, as that plant had been inoperational for several months recently for upgrades, causing no problems.
“So when it went offline, it was not of immediate concern because the system has been able to be sustained without it for long periods of time,” Manheimer said in the press conference. “In fact, (City) Council wasn’t even made aware because it wasn’t considered an emergency situation on Dec. 24.”
But when water usage “skyrocketed” past normal levels, it “became clear that without that facility there wasn’t going to be enough water in the system to supply customers,” Manheimer added.
Manheimer said people wanted to know why alerts didn’t start going out Christmas Eve, but she said at that point she hadn’t even been alerted because Mills River being down wasn’t viewed as a serious problem.
Both Melton and Manheimer described the events as “unprecedented,” which I suppose is correct, to a degree at least.
I’ll note that we’ve had polar vortexes dip into our area before, bringing in single-digit temperatures and below-zero wind chills, without this kind of lingering debacle. And I’ll also note the city has a long history of water outages or “boil water” alerts due to aging infrastructure or problems with sediment infiltrating pipes.
To me, it’s clear that for the first couple of days the city couldn’t get a good handle on what was actually causing these problems. Was a poor monitoring system to blame? People being on vacation? Lax preparation?
For many of those affected, the outages ranged from an inconvenience to a huge hassle, involving searching for bottled water in stores that had been cleaned out of their supply. But what about others who are home-bound or unable to get water?
The city addressed this in an alert on the evening of Dec. 27, announcing that “the City is in the process of establishing a system to provide drinking water to those in the most impacted areas who are unable to get water for themselves.” Another 24 hours passed before the city announced that plan, which involved calling 211, a referral service provided by United Way of North Carolina. What took so long?
Stay tuned, because this story undoubtedly has legs. Very angry, thirsty legs.
Manheimer said at the press conference that she’s heard from a lot of unhappy residents and business owners, particularly about one issue.
“I think the biggest challenge around this water outage is folks want an ETA – ‘When is that water going to come back out of my faucet?’ ” Manheimer said. “And the answer is, ‘We can’t precisely tell you.’ We can tell you today that the Mills River plant is gradually going to be brought back online. That is the hope, but we also know we have to be very careful in bringing the system back so that we don’t create any greater harm.”
Melton pointed out in the press conference that during low-pressure or no-pressure events, air gets in the system, and if a line is over-pressurized when restoring service, it can break. Also, they have to test outgoing water to make sure that it meets safety standards.
Undoubtedly, the city will hold a debriefing session on all this to gauge what they can do better. Certainly, city officials need to hold a press conference faster than they did here, and they have to get that better monitoring and notification system in place as fast as possible.
Because, as the Candler resident said, this is unacceptable.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org