Yeah, it’s a pain. And now schools are closed again, which my daughter appreciates but probably most grownups do not. Also a thing many grownups did not appreciate was how long it took for the boil notices to go out.
The city’s boil water advisory drew a torrent of criticism from Houston residents and some city council members who complained the public announcement should have been made sooner and more widely.
The initial news release announcing the advisory went out to subscribers of the City of Houston Newsroom at 6:44 p.m. Sunday, about eight hours after the East Water Purification Plant first experienced a power outage that caused the water pressure to dip below state safety requirements.
In addition to the press release, the city put out a Twitter announcement at 7:27 p.m. and a text message to subscribers of a city notification system called AlertHouston around 10:30 p.m.
Even then, many residents did not learn of the boil water notice until later Sunday night, provoking a wave of criticism and complaints about the lack of communication from city leaders.
“Why was there no notice earlier in the day?” asked Stephen Madden, a local resident who found out about the notice around 9 p.m. Sunday when it was too late to find water supplies. “At least a heads-up that there may be an issue? We need a full explanation.”
Houstonian Andrew Jefferson said he first learned of the boil water advisory on social media around 10:30 p.m. Sunday.
“My wife asked me, ‘Why not just send out an alert on peoples’ phones? I think that would have been a lot more effective of a measure…It’s just irritating,” he said.
City officials did not notify the public sooner because there was no evidence of contamination and staff did not know whether the pressure drop was serious enough to trigger a boil water notice, Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference Monday. The city spent hours working with state regulators at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to determine the appropriate next step, he said.
A TCEQ spokesman, however, said any drop in pressure below the state’s emergency regulatory standard of 20 pounds per square inch triggers the requirement to issue a boil water advisory.
Of the 16 monitoring sites that dropped below 20 psi after the power failed around 11 a.m. Sunday, 14 rose back above that within two minutes, and the other two rebounded within 30 minutes, according to Turner.
“The thinking was it was not going to trigger a need for a boil water notice,” the mayor said. “We were in collaboration with TCEQ and a decision was made out of an abundance of caution to issue the boil water notice.”
The city did not directly inform all water customers about the emergency. Though legally obligated to notify the public whenever the water pressure falls below the required level for any amount of time, the city, by law, only has to send out a statement to newsroom subscribers, according to Houston Public Works spokeswoman Erin Jones,.
“We rely on the media to get it out to the public,” Jones said. “We are required by state regulations to only send a release within 24 hours of the incident, so we were actually ahead of the game.”
District A Councilmember Amy Peck said the city should have sent out an emergency alert to all Houstonians. She said she did not find out about the outage and water pressure drop until she saw the press release.
“The AlertHouston message should have gone out at the same time as that media release, and it’s not enough because AlertHouston is something that you have to opt in for,” she said. “It should have gone out as a wireless emergency alert that you basically have to opt out of.”
Turner said he thought he had issued an emergency alert, but Public Works Director Carol Haddock confirmed such an alert never went out.
Houston’s Office of Emergency Management issued a statement Monday afternoon saying it initially was unable to send out an alert because of a communication issue that had to be resolved with state and federal agencies.
“We did reach out to Harris County to send a message on our behalf, but the message would have been sent to over two million non-residents who did not reside within the city of Houston city limits, therefore not feasible,” Deputy Director Thomas Munoz said.
District I Council Member Robert Gallegos said Public Works should have informed council members and municipalities that purchase water from Houston in a more timely fashion.
“I would have preferred Public Works notifying the council members one on one so we could have taken appropriate action, instead of reading it on a city tweet,” Gallego said. “Also, the local municipalities that buy their water from the city, those mayors should be notified about the city of Houston issuing a boil water notice.”
Sure seems to me like there were options for doing better. I get the Alert Houston emails, and it hit my mailbox at 10:30 PM on Sunday. If I hadn’t had a late work call that night, I wouldn’t have known about it until I got up on Monday. I don’t know what the best way to do this is, but that’s something the city should work on. And for the record, as this Twitter thread documents, the state – the TCEQ and the Legislature – could do a lot more to require cities to do better. This is one of those times where a blanket state law makes sense, and the one we have now is inadequate. But regardless of that, the city of Houston can and should do better. Let’s at least learn from this experience, OK?
UPDATE: Well, the lifting of the boil notice arrived as an audible alert, like an Amber Alert, on my phone at 7 AM. So that was different. Campos was unimpressed.