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City records show disorganization, poor communication during Houston’s recent boil water notice

Customers purchased packs of water by the cartful at a Costco in Houston in November after the city issued a boil water notice.
Celeste Schurman
Houston Public Media
Customers purchased packs of water by the cartful at a Costco in Houston in November after the city issued a boil water notice.

Millions of Houston residents found themselves under a boil water notice for almost two days in November after two transformers at a water treatment plant went offline.

The length of the interruption wasn’t the only issue – it was also the time it took for city leaders to tell the public. Reporting by the Houston Chronicle shows that although no state or federal rules were broken, city officials were scrambling behind the scenes to respond to the emergency.

Yilun Cheng, who covers local politics for the Chronicle, said city records show it took the city eight hours from the initial power outage to publicly announce the boil water notice.

“The communication records we requested really just painted a picture of general confusion and a lack of preparedness from what we could see,” she said. “There were really no step-by-step strategies that they were following, and it was very much reacting to situations as they arise and responding to people’s inquiries as they came in.”

Cheng said the mayor’s office is producing a report about the incident that may shed some light on what happened. She said that although there was never any evidence of contamination in the water system, some residents were upset it took the city so long to announce the precautionary notice.

Communication between city staff shows that officials decided a notice was needed around 4 p.m. but that the alert wasn’t sent out until 7 p.m.

“A lot of people didn’t see the announcement because they weren’t really monitoring local news or Twitter. And by the time they saw it, it was too late for them to go out and buy bottled water and prepare themselves and their families for the next day,” she said. “City Council members were angry about how things went. They told us that because they were not informed in a more timely manner, it undermined their ability to offer support to their own constituents.”

Cheng said one advocate she spoke with worried about how the city will respond to future disasters given the lack of coordination in response to this boil water notice.

“One advocate I talked to raised this point that in Houston, unfortunately, we have lots of experience dealing with crises and disasters and we’re likely to see more in the future. So she thought that’s why it’s so disheartening and worrying that at this point our officials are not more well equipped to deal with a boil-water notice,” Cheng said. “Hopefully this will be an opportunity for city officials to review their current strategies and figure out ways to improve them as we brace ourselves for the next emergency.”

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