On the first night of last week's water emergency in suburban Maryland, a District resident called his friends in Montgomery County and invited them over for a shower. "What do you mean?" they responded. "We have water. The crisis hasn't affected us yet."
In this decade of shortages and health hazards in which dozens of vital commodities are either too dangerous or too hard to come by, crises come and go like rainstorms.
Carcinogen-bearing Tris, asbestos dust and saccharin come under official scrutiny. Coffee, beef and canning lids disappear briefly from the grocery shelves, then reappear in large supplies and inflated prices. Water, oil, natural gas, gasoline are here today, gone tomorrow and back again.
To some it's chafing, the tornado watch that never materializes. Others just grin and bear it. The water shortage, declared one county woman, was simply "an act of God." Or mismanagement, bureaucratic ineptitude, or somebody's idea of a sure way to raise water bills, other residents quipped.
Others demand regulation. As the water shortage demonstrated, some folks rather look forward to forced conservation and regulation. They boasted of the good feeling about "camping out" as a way of pitching in and of serving customers on paper plates in restaurants to show civic pride.
Perhaps there is more of a credibility shortage than anything more profound conjectured a Gaithersburg man. "Ten to 15 years ago we would have taken things on face value from our leaders.But with this, all the information was so simplified, and we didn't get details or good reasons as to why we should conserve. I think the public is more intelligent than we're given credit for."
What's apparent from the responses of suburban Maryland residents to the water emergency is that many people today have to feel the crisis in their own lives before they believe it really exists.
"I turned my water on," said a Burtonsville man. "I had 98 per cent of my pressure.If you can see the problem, picture it, understand it, then you know it's there. With the gasoline shortages, we waited in lines. But with this, all we heard was talk."
Even in Gaithersburg, one of the hardest hit areas according to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission residents had no direct evidence of the water shortage until at least eight hours after it was declared by officials.
"There was a fair bit of talk that the WSSC cried wolf," one resident commented.
Eastward in Olney, also a region that was reported entirely without water, two 5,000-gallon water trucks stood three-quarters full on Thursday, a full 18-hours after the emergency was announced.
"People didn't use the trucks because they didn't believe there was a crisis. And, as long as they could get water in their homes, they figured why drive to some remote location and get it from a truck," a resident said.
In Potomac, water gushed as usual through faucets. "People think they're exaggerating," said one compliant resident who reluctantly ate off paper plates to do his share.
"After we'd conserved, we were told we hadn't saved any water. For two days, I didn't take a shower, even after a tennis game in that miserable heat. How can you believe there is a crisis when everything around you looks normal?"
Prince George's County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr. solemnly declared the first day of the emergency: "This is not a dress rehersal."
About the same time, one man was drenching his car in fresh water. "They told us there was a gas shortage, but people still used a lot of gas. Then there was a beef shortage, but we never had a problem getting beef."
This attitude is now common. In February, a Gallup poll showed that nearly half the people east of the Rocky Mountains did not believe there was a fuel shortage and most householders were unwilling to turn their thermostats down to 55 degrees at night despite what President Carter said.
"Half the current shortage of natural gas" could be solved by setting theremostats at 65 during the day and 55 at night, he announced.
In April, 45 per cent of the respondents to another Gallup poll called the energy crisis as Carter was describing it "very serious" and 37 per cent saw it as "fairly serious." But when asked what the most important problems facing the U.S. today were, those polled placed energy after the high cost of living nad unemployment.
"My wife is panicky," said one Montgomery County man last week. "My kid came home from camp with a load of dirty clothes. She didn't know if she should use the washing machine. I said, either you use it or you lose a bunch of clothes. So she washed them. Where do you draw the line?" he asked, when "crisis" is declared.