In a city that delivers blazing-fast internet, looms large on the logistics landscape, and mints start-ups of every type, Phillip D. Glass is easy to overlook. Sitting blithely on that water tower along Riverside Drive, Glass cheerfully represents what we've long taken for granted in this city by the Tennessee River — clean, abundant water.
But that all changed on the evening of Sept. 12, 2019. Tennessee American Water and its contractors were working on a planned project to install a valve on a 36-inch transmission main when they noticed water spreading near the site. Within hours, more than 35,000 connections across the city ran dry — from hotels and office buildings to tourist attractions, government offices and schools.
Throughout the day on Friday, Sept. 13, major employers shuttered their buildings, sending thousands of employees home to work or suspending operations altogether. Restaurants closed. Hotels relocated guests.
Hundreds of thousands of bottles of water landed at distribution points all over town. The Hamilton County jail trucked in portable toilets and fans. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga postponed the chancellor's annual State of the University address.
At the Tennessee Aquarium, where water is the name of the game, crews got creative to try and keep tanks cool and animals safe. "When we lose water, we lose our ability to cool," explains Thom Demas, director of Aquatic Collection and Life Support Systems. "At that point, every exhibit becomes its own thermal mass."
Crews hauled in massive quantities of ice, relocated animals to cooler locations, and hatched an ingenious plan to pump water from a reservoir tray in the base of the building up to the chillers. The Chattanooga Fire Department showed up to pump water directly from the Tennessee River to the roof, and the aquarium contracted with a construction company to send over a rotating supply of water trucks.
They did lose a few animals — four fish, some urchins, anemones and sea stars in an exhibit that warmed faster than the others. But, overall, the outcome was as good as it could have been, given the circumstances, says aquarium spokesman Thom Benson.
"We can't say enough about the work of the staff — how diligent and creative they were," Benson says.
All told, much of Chattanooga spent about 36 hours without water, and another day or so boiling water to ensure it would be safe to drink. Tennessee American Water has said it won't reimburse customers for any losses — after all, no utility can guarantee uninterrupted service. But local attorney Lee Davis has filed a class-action lawsuit that contends the event was the foreseeable result of inadequate maintenance of the water infrastructure.
"The whole thing was entirely preventable if you have the right infrastructure in place," says Davis, who filed the suit with Van Bunch, an attorney who successfully sued over water quality issues in West Virginia.
Tennessee American Water is still investigating the cause of the outage, and city officials are still calculating the estimated financial impact of nearly two days without water.
"As a result of the planned resiliency project, the local drinking water system has been strengthened," says utility spokeswoman Daphne Kirksey.
Phillip D. Glass didn't have any comment, but he's always been the silent type.
Phillip D. Glass
* Job: Ambassador for Tennessee American Water Company
* Influence: Ever wonder how much water matters to the local economy? Now we know.
* Just for fun: Glass enjoys hanging out on top of the big blue water tower on Riverside Drive, greeting drivers and watching over the Riverwalk.