Why did most people in Charlotte not know that they should boil their water until several hours after a water main break? The answer to that question — or lack thereof — should concern any Charlottean who expects their government to inform and protect them. It also should embarrass the officials who fell short.
A large water main near the heart of Charlotte erupted Monday afternoon, impacting thousands of residents in 16 ZIP codes. It was a mess — in more ways than one.
Around 10:15 p.m. — nearly six hours after the break occurred — Charlotte Water said that affected residents “can” boil water out of an “abundance of caution.” It wasn’t until around 1:30 a.m. that they sent a tweet telling residents they SHOULD boil water used for human consumption.
But that was much too late for some Charlotteans, who were either confused by the initial wording of the advisory or didn’t see it at all. Many social media users said that by the time Charlotte Water clarified its stance, they had already brushed their teeth and gone to bed, not knowing that their water was potentially unsafe to drink. (The boil water advisory was lifted late Wednesday morning.)
There’s a pretty significant difference between “can” and “should,” especially in emergency situations. And a nearly six-hour lapse in communication just isn’t acceptable. As it turns out, residents wouldn’t have gotten an alert about the boil water advisory unless they had previously signed up to receive them — calling into question the city’s ability to effectively communicate with residents in moments of crisis. Using an opt-in service to communicate potential safety hazards and concerns doesn’t do folks a whole lot of good, especially if you aren’t proactive about publicizing the service or getting people signed up. What if it had been a bigger emergency than a water main break — say, a gas leak, for example, that poses an immediate threat to residents?
Oh, and where was Charlotte Water Director Angela Charles while all this was happening?
In Chicago, apparently, with no plans to return just yet. WSOC’s Joe Bruno noticed Charles used a virtual office background during her Zoom press conference Tuesday morning, despite actually being in what appeared to be a hotel room. Why conceal her location? And why wasn’t she on the first flight back to Charlotte for what she called “historical”?
A source told me this am Angela Charles is in Chicago and not CLT to lead the response on the ground. During her presser this morning, I noticed Charles used a fake office Zoom background. When she moved a hotel bed could be seen. CLT Water just confirmed to me she's not here pic.twitter.com/zgzdtraJqH
— Joe Bruno (@JoeBrunoWSOC9) October 19, 2021
It’s still unclear what caused the break, but age could have been a factor. The affected water main was 66 years old. It’s a reminder of Charlotte’s aging infrastructure — 6% of the overall system of water and wastewater pipes is at least 50 years old. That could be worrisome in a city as large and as fast-growing as Charlotte, as rapid population growth strains old pipes accustomed to delivering water to a much smaller city. Right now, officials are still working to figure out what went wrong. But the next step should be figuring out what can be done to prevent another “historical” main break or service disruption from occurring, and how the city can respond better when it does.
“We feel like we responded quickly, but there is room for improvement once the decision is made to get information out to our customer base,” Charles said at Tuesday’s press conference.
That’s a pretty big understatement. In a city the size of Charlotte, basic competence from government officials can, and should, be reasonably expected. Clear and communicative leadership is imperative when something goes wrong. Charlotteans deserve a better explanation of why that didn’t happen.