The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For most of D.C., tap water is safe. But communication problems abound.

The outdoor Park View Children’s Pool in Northwest Washington was among those closed Friday as a precaution.
The outdoor Park View Children’s Pool in Northwest Washington was among those closed Friday as a precaution. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

A maintenance worker who failed to turn off a valve at a pumping station Thursday is probably to blame for plunging 100,000 District residents across a band of Northeast and Northwest Washington into emergency water restrictions, according to officials familiar with the investigation.

That finding emerged as D.C. Water officials on Saturday significantly shrank the area of the city under a boil-water order, reducing the impact to about 20,000 residents in five Northeast Washington neighborhoods — University Heights, Michigan Park, North Michigan Park, Queens Chapel and parts of Brookland.

D.C. Water tells Council Member that human error caused water emergency

Officials said water from a fire hydrant at one of 13 test sites tested positive for coliform bacteria, which, while unlikely to cause illness, can indicate the presence of other pathogens. Further tests could mean the restrictions will stay in place in Northeast Washington into Sunday.

But even as the boil-water order was lifted for most of the city, information from the water utility was scattered, confusing and, in some cases, delayed — stoking anger among residents who complained that officials botched the job of conveying something as vital as the safety of drinking water.

In Michigan Park in Northeast Washington, where the boil-water order remained in effect Saturday, the Rev. Frank DeSiano, 73, said he — like other residents in the area — was confused about the possible dangers and frustrated that the city had not clearly communicated the risks.

What to know about the water advisory

“I should know how it’s going to get me, if it’s going to affect my stomach or cause infections in other parts of my body,” he said. “Maybe they don’t want us to know that.”

His seminary, Paulist Fathers, had seen more people than usual come in to fill up bottles from the five-gallon jugs of water they keep available for the public.

“The level of fear is so great,” said DeSiano, who on Saturday was found sipping a Diet Coke from a can at a McDonald’s on South Dakota Avenue NE. The restaurant was not serving fountain drinks due to the boil-water advisory.

Nearly two hours after D.C. Water officials told residents outside the small northeastern section of the city that it was fine to drink from their taps, the utility warned them through Twitter to first run cold water for 10 minutes.

Trinity Washington University in Northeast Washington complained in a tweet to D.C. Water that its revised map of the reduced affected area did not include street names, making it impossible for the university to properly update students.

And residents who turned to D.C. Water’s Internet page for help were briefly out of luck as it crashed for about an hour around lunchtime Saturday.

Tommy Wells, chairman of D.C. Water’s board of directors, promised his group would “take a deep review” of how the independent agency handled the crisis. He admitted that communication was confusing and slow.

“Our customers need to know in real time exactly what is going on with their water,” said Wells, who is also the director of the D.C. Department of Energy & Environment.

David Gadis, chief executive of D.C. Water, said at a media briefing Saturday that it took time to investigate after the open valve was found at about 8:30 p.m. on Thursday night. It led to a severe drop in water pressure, which was restored in one hour and six minutes.

The only way the utility had to gauge the scale of the problem was to monitor complaints that were pouring into D.C. Water from the public — but the volume of calls soon overwhelmed the agency’s telephone system, Gadis wrote in a letter to D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh ­(D-Ward 3).

It took until the middle of the night for officials to decide that window of dropped pressure might have introduced contaminants, which can happen when water doesn’t move fast enough through the pipes.

A boil-water order was issued at 4:30 a.m., first on Twitter, then on several robo-calls, some of which took up to eight hours to go through.

“We struggled to strike a balance between informing our customers and alarming them,” Gadis said of waiting to issue the alerts. “This was an unusual occurrence and we wanted to be absolutely certain of the extent of the risk before we alerted customers to change their behavior.”

Mayor Bowser walks away from reporter asking about water crisis

Gadis said they decided to send alerts “well before dawn with the hope it would reach as many people as possible. We are sorry it did not reach some of those individuals. Our hope is to refine this process.”

Gadis would not describe what caused the problem, saying it remained under review. But in the letter he sent to Cheh, he wrote that “we suspect it may have involved human error.” A D.C. Water spokesman confirmed that was accurate; two officials familiar with the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, blamed a maintenance worker for failing to turn off a pressure valve.

The communication difficulties angered many.

Valerie Baron, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for the northern edge of Columbia Heights, walked through her neighborhood Friday morning and later that evening, targeting restaurants and day-care centers, and still found people unaware of the restrictions. Of eight restaurants in her area, six did not know there was a problem, Baron said.

Gadis and Christopher Rodriguez, the head of the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, promised officials would improve emergency communications. Both officials said the various ways available all have limitations.

The robo-calls D.C. Water sent were limited to its 34,000 customers in the impact area — but the agency only had 22,000 working telephone numbers, Gadis said. The system can only handle a certain amount of calls per minute, meaning it took hours to make the calls, limited to people whose names are on the account. About 100,000 people use water in the area initially impacted.

The District used AlertDC, a text and emailing system that reaches people who subscribe, which is about 104,000 or just 14 percent of the city’s population.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommended that D.C. Water make what is called “reverse 911” calls to reach residents before they could use their water on Friday morning. Reverse 911 calls are similar to robo-calls but able to reach every phone in a chosen area. But Rodriguez said “reverse 911” only works with landlines.

The communication problem was particularly acute in areas of the District where residents do not speak English. In heavily Latino stretches of northern Columbia Heights, residents expressed shock and frustration that the city government had taken so long in any language to notify them — and even longer for those who only speak Spanish.

Maria Umaña, a 52 year-old shopkeeper, said she only learned about the boil-water advisory late on Saturday morning from a customer who walked into her dollar store. Throughout the day on Friday, Umaña said she drank about four cups of filtered tap water — which would have still been susceptible to possible contamination — and used even more to brush her teeth in the morning and afternoon.

“In fundamental cases like these, they need to tell us much earlier so that we can take necessary precautions,” she said. “I’m surprised and very worried. Water is so important for health.”

Down 14th Street NW at Alex’s Hair Salon, Milagros Aries, 36, said she was concerned that the D.C. government had initially informed city residents in just English.

The Mayor’s Office of Latino Affairs posted an alert about the advisory to Twitter at 11:17 a.m. Friday, linking to a website in English. A follow-up tweet with suggested precautions did not come until more than three hours later.

Aries herself did not find out until a government official stopped by the salon at 8 p.m. Friday. “Not everyone understands English here. D.C. is a very multicultural place,” she said, “and simultaneous notification in all languages would have been better.”

Maria Cerros, 40, said the District “took way too long” to notify people like her. “Who knows if I might get sick?” she said. “If I’ll end up in the hospital?”

Cerros said she had taken pills with a glass of water during her lunch break at a maintenance company and only heard from co-workers, who had been watching TV news reports, about the water issue.

When news did reach the community Friday evening, Aries said, it created a panic. Crowds poured into three nearby supermarkets — Giant, Mega and Walmart — and emptied them of bottled water by closing.

Back in Michigan Park, Sean Reed, 40, said he was unaware that residents were being advised not to brush their teeth with tap water.

“Wow. Wow. Wow,” he said, after having learned even filtered water had been deemed unsafe. “Now that’s a problem.”

As in Columbia Heights, the neighborhood Giant and Safeway had both run out of bottled water by Saturday. And neighbors were growing frustrated with the lack of communication from the city government.

“How long is this going to take?” Reed said. “I’m giving them hopefully by Monday. Then, we’ve got issues.”

Peter Jamison contributed to this report.