"Water water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink."
Many Chattanoogans whose high school senior English classes included Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and the above lines, could relate after the past weekend.
Blessed by the Tennessee River and expansive Chickamauga Lake, many residents served by Tennessee American Water Co. nevertheless did not have access to clean water over the last several days because of a Thursday night water main break.
As late as Monday morning, the Tennessee American website showed significant pockets of service — much of it in Elder Mountain and Lookout Valley — where water pressure had been restored but where a boil-to-use advisory was still in effect.
Given the scope of the problem — the company's service area extends into Georgia and to Marion and Sequatchie counties in Tennessee — we have no doubt that as many resources as possible were thrown into its repair and remediation.
However, as of Monday morning, Tennessee American had provided no information on the cause of the main break. Indeed, company officials who were repeatedly asked said the cause would not even be sought until full water quality was restored.
But the company does owe the 35,000 customers affected by the break a full explanation about what happened, what it's doing to repair the area where the break occurred and what the chances are — based on the condition of its infrastructure — for a similar break elsewhere.
The company and the Hamilton County Office of Emergency Management also will benefit by doing a thorough review of what they did right and what they could improve upon throughout the water crisis. We're sure they believe they did everything they could during the outage, but hindsight always provides clearer insights.
For instance, even as of late Sunday, despite a top-of-the-web page announcement by Hixson Utility District (HUD) that "the boil-water advisory in affect for parts of Hamilton County does not affect Hixson Utility customers," some HUD customers still were hearing that they needed to boil their water.
Similarly, a note on the Eastside Utility District website said its customers "are not affected by the Tennessee American Water outage" and that the agency "has not issued a boil notice to its customers." But a Tennessee American map of the area where pressure had been restored and a boil advisory lifted appeared to overlap with the Eastside Utility District coverage area, confusing customers.
Customers also were confused by a Tennessee America advisory Friday afternoon that said its customers should "voluntarily boil your water before using" and a Hamilton County Office of Emergency Management reminder on Saturday morning that said "a mandatory boil water advisory remains in effect for the time being."
Restaurants, confused by the "voluntary"/"mandatory" designations, had to make decisions. Should we close or remain open with limited service? The Chattanooga Hamilton County Health Department made it easy for some food outlets on Friday, saying any without running water under pressure would need to close. But even as far from the water main break as East Brainerd, some restaurants late Saturday offered only drive-through service. Others opened but served only bottled water or canned drinks.
And even though there was uncertainty and confusion in places, in even more places the human spirit was evident. Water was provided for those without it at distribution sites at Chattanooga's Youth and Family Development Centers, the Chattanooga Police Department distributed more than 300,000 bottles of water, staff members worked overnight to restore service to the chillers at the Tennessee Aquarium (where, despite the valiant efforts several aquatic creatures died) and volunteers from in and out of the area helped hand out water and hygiene bags.
So dedicated was the response that on Friday, in at least one instance, emergency personnel stopped traffic on Amnicola Highway so trucks carrying bottled water could get to their appointed destinations a little quicker. It might have been the hospitals or perhaps the jail, two places where a lack of water would compound already unfortunate situations.
Now, more than four days after the water main break, we give thanks not only for those who worked so hard to remedy the situation but those who maintain our water supply daily so that an unfortunate incident like this was such a rare occurrence that many lifelong Chattanoogans say they don't remember it happening before.
Nevertheless, with a incident that affected governments, commerce, schools, tourism, homes and individuals, we look forward to learning what caused it and what is being done to make sure it is a once-in-a-lifetime event.