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Texts Suggest Boil Water Notice Confusion

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Pouring water into saucepan. | Image by GCapture/Shutterstock

New records obtained by the Houston Chronicle suggest that in the hours that led up to the boil water notice in Houston last month, city officials were scrambling.

Messages appear to depict city officials debating wording, as well as being unsure about whom would be affected and should be alerted.

There is still no evidence that the City’s water was not potable. Officials sent out the notice due to water pressure falling briefly below the emergency regulatory standard on November 27. Low pressure can lead to a risk of bacteria-infested water but is a fairly routine problem.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner stated in an interview that the water boil notice would not have been issued if it had been up to him, as there was a very low probability of contamination, and the notice seemed to cause unnecessary panic.

His office is investigating how the incident was handled, in part because officials reportedly alerted the public hours after they knew the notice needed to be sent out.

The water pressure dropped around 11 a.m., and officials apparently confirmed the need for the water boil notice around 4 p.m. They sent out the alert after 7 p.m.

Employees at Houston Public Works, including Director Carol Haddock, reportedly sent text messages suggesting they were hopeful that the notice would not have to be issued. Around 4 p.m., they were informed that the notice would have to be sent out “as soon as is practicable.”

The City alerted the community via a press release around 7:30 p.m. and through the app AlertHouston around 10:30 p.m. They were unable to send out a citywide emergency phone alert, though the reason for this failure is unclear.

While slow, this method of notification was in compliance with the law. Cities are given 24 hours to notify residents of immediate health and safety concerns.

Complicating the problem was the fact that Houston Water has customers in nearby cities as well. These customers began to question whether or not they were affected by the notice while officials were still compiling a list of potentially affected customers.

At 7:44 p.m., Haddock sent a text message to the assistant public works director that said, “Forgot we should have let airports know.”

Panic increased when Houston ISD announced school closures at 9:20 p.m.

City officials perceived this as an overreaction and hastened to get the boil water notice suspended. To get it lifted, however, they had to undergo water testing, which requires an 18-hour incubation period, meaning classes would be canceled for two days.

Turner wrote in a message to Haddock that he did not want schools to cancel for two days and was focused on getting the notice lifted as soon as possible. The City was unsuccessful in this effort, and schools remained closed.

The mayor’s office said in an email to the Houston Chronicle, “We followed the same process notice as the previous boil water notice in the past. We can always improve on messaging and distribution.”

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