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Houston scrambles to fix water supply after failures force closures

John Beezley, of Bonham, carries a case of water after learning that a boil water notice was issued for the city of Houston on Nov. 27. Beezley just arrived in town with his wife, who is undergoing treatment at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and they are staying in a camping trailer. (Mark Mulligan/AP)

HOUSTON — Millions of residents in the country’s fourth-largest city had to boil tap water Monday, businesses and schools were forced to close, and elective surgeries were postponed with no relief expected until at least Tuesday at the earliest following a weekend power outage at a city water purification site.

Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) said that state regulators tested water at 29 city sites Monday morning, and those samples have to be reviewed after about 18 hours before the boil water order can be lifted, he said. The earliest allowed under that timeline would be about 3 a.m. Tuesday, he said.

The city’s 276 schools, which serve nearly 200,000 students, were closed Monday and will remain so on Tuesday, district officials said late Monday. Other smaller school districts in the area that closed Monday because they rely on Houston’s water also said they would remain closed Tuesday.

Turner said the city issued the boil water order late Sunday after pressure dropped below state-required levels at three plants within the site due to a failed transformer and backup transformer. That occurred at about 10:30 a.m. Sunday.

He said power was restored to the site by 12:30 p.m. and full water pressure by 3:30 p.m. Then city officials conferred with state regulators and issued the boil water order at 6:44 p.m., he said. Texas allows cities 24 hours to issue a boil water order, and Turner said Houston alerted residents of the notice via email, text and social media.

“We are optimistic the results will come back clean,” Turner said at a Monday briefing. “ … We still have no indication the system was compromised.”

Turner said that the water filtration site received regular maintenance, but that he was bringing in an outside team to conduct a diagnostic review of the transformers, and would be consulting with the Department of Homeland Security officials about how the city alerted residents to the problem.

City Councilwoman Abbie Kamin said she did not know about the boil water order until several hours after it went into effect, when she received a text from her 18-month-old son’s school — and had already used tap water in his bottle.

“We have heard from several residents," Kamin said Monday. I think the main frustration is what I experienced, which is not knowing about it until later.”

“I do trust the city and defer to departmental expertise. I appreciate all who are working to lift the boil notice and I hope that we can review the notification process to learn what can be improved upon and improve lines of communication,” she said.

Kamin said she contacted local businesses to see how the order was affecting them, and one of the biggest issues was school closures.

“When an entire school district as large as Houston ISD closes, that’s a big concern because you have parents now who can’t go to work,” she said.

The city’s order directed Houston’s 2.2 million customers to boil all water used for food, drinking, bathing or tooth brushing, and to avoid using water from refrigerators or ice makers.

“People are concerned and in general people didn’t get the notice early enough,” said Ben Hirsch, co-director of research and organizing at West Street Recovery, a local disaster recovery nonprofit that was spreading news of the boil water order to residents via WhatsApp groups.

Many low-income residents in predominantly minority neighborhoods like northeast Houston already avoided drinking tap water due to problems in the past, Hirsch said, particularly after last year’s winter storm and Hurricane Harvey in 2017 disrupted water service.

Last year, a lawsuit alleging that persistent sewage overflows in Houston violated the Clean Water Act resulted in a 15-year, $2 billion federal consent decree for infrastructure improvements, funded through increased water bills. The city was also required to pay a $4.4 million settlement to both the state of Texas and the federal government.

“Trust in the water system is really low,” Hirsch said.

But residents who drink bottled water often still rely on city water to wash dishes, clean and bathe, he said. And once the boil water order was issued, some local grocery store chains started limiting how many bottles or cases of water customers could buy.

At an HEB grocery near downtown, Ola Nkengla, a geology graduate student at a nearby college, heard staff announce a two-case or jug water limit. She saw families with carts loaded down with water have to return some, and decided she would only buy one case, even though she has a health condition that requires her to stay hydrated.

“This is not what I’d expect in an advanced country,” said Nkengla, 30, who’s from Cameroon, as she loaded the water into her car outside. “It’s terrifying. This is a panic buy. I just hope it doesn’t last long. Some people have big households.”

Nearby, Kimberly Tobolas was loading two cases of water into her car, shocked to have seen how empty the shelves were already.

A retired middle school and teacher and choral director, Tobolas, 56, said she sympathized with parents. After she heard about the boil water order late Sunday, she went to notify her wife’s parents in an assisted-living facility, where staff had yet to post signs alerting residents not to drink the water, she said.

Tobolas said she was glad the city issued the order.

“They’re being cautious,” she said. “In terms of health and safety, they made the right call.”

Late Monday, Turner planned to join Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) in distributing water at a Baptist church in Houston’s historically Black 3rd Ward neighborhood, near the grocery store.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R), who represents Houston, criticized the mayor and city water managers for delaying public alerts and failing to prevent the outages.

“Why did city backup generators at pumping stations FAIL?” Bettencourt posted on Twitter. “This is a City Maintenance ISSUE!”

Others noted Bettencourt was among veteran state lawmakers who could have improved the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s standards, requiring the city to better maintain its water system and alert the public to problems.

“He doesn’t have a lot of room to be criticizing the city of Houston when he could have been pressuring TCEQ to change some of these rules,” said Daniel Cohen, chair of the nonprofit Indivisible Houston, which works on democracy issues.

Cohen said community advocates and lawmakers will probably raise those issues when the state legislature convenes in January.

“Hopefully we use this moment to realize we need to make change and to protect people,” he said.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said in a statement that he had been in contact with Turner about the boil water order and that state environmental quality officials were “working to fulfill the city’s request for help with rapid turnaround of water sample results.”

“Texas is swiftly responding to help get a safe supply of water back online in Houston,” Abbott posted on Twitter.

While areas surrounding Houston have issued boil water orders in recent months and other Texas cities have issued them this year, Houston has only issued three in recent years, Turner said: during the statewide freeze and power crisis in February 2021 and after a water main break in 2020.

Houston is Texas’s largest city, led by Turner and other Democratic officials in a state dominated by Republicans. Water issues have plagued several cities in recent years, from Baltimore to Flint, Mich., and Jackson, Miss.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency launched an investigation into whether Republican-run Mississippi state agencies discriminated against the state’s capital city by refusing to fund improvements for its failing water system that led to water pump failures, a loss of running water and boil water orders that stretched from summer into fall.