Atlanta scrambles to prevent water crisis from spreading

Crew investigates another potential water main break amid repairs to others

AJC reports from across the city during a major water break leaving residents and businesses in the lurch.

Robert Watkins waded into the middle of West Peachtree Street in Midtown Atlanta Sunday, using a bucket to scoop water gushing from a broken pipe near 11th Street.

Appearing tired but determined, he headed down the normally busy street nearby to Soak & Polish Nail Bar, where he said his bucket, filled to the brim, could come in handy.

“So we can flush the toilet and, you know, the different stuff that we need to do with water,” said Watkins, whose home was also without running water. “We pray they get those water lines fixed.”

Such surreal scenes played out across the city over the weekend as Atlanta’s water crisis threatened to expand. Authorities announced Sunday they were investigating a potential water main break at 1190 Atlantic Drive NW. Meanwhile, they temporarily shut off a water main at Euclid and North avenues to complete emergency repairs there.

Residents and businesses in those areas, city officials said, could experience the kind of disruptions that have plagued Atlanta since the first water main break was discovered Friday. Live performances have been postponed or canceled. Restaurants and other businesses have suffered financial losses. And city residents like Watkins have been inventing creative ways to get by.

There were also glimmers of hope Sunday. City officials announced water services had been fully restored to Atlanta’s airport, the Fulton County Jail, the Atlanta City Detention Center and several senior high-rise buildings. Also, a boil-water advisory for customers near Joseph E. Boone Boulevard and James P. Brawley Drive could be lifted as soon as Monday, if Atlanta gets authorization from Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, said Al Wiggins Jr., the city’s Watershed Management Department commissioner.

“So far, we see that the samples are looking good. Water pressure has remained consistent,” he said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sunday.

Georgia EPD said it was in close communication with the City of Atlanta and was standing by to “assist as needed.”

City authorities said they don’t know what caused the water main break on West Peachtree Street, though they don’t believe it is connected to the one at Joseph E. Boone Boulevard and James P. Brawley Drive, Wiggins said. Some onlookers have jokingly referred to the break as the “aqua apocalypse” or the “West Peachtree River.”

“We won’t be able be able to collect samples for the West Peachtree and 11th street area until we complete the repairs,” Wiggins said.

Over the weekend, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens declared a state of emergency to free up resources for repairs, and the city activated a joint operations center. Fire stations have been distributing cases of bottled water.

“Our fire recruits were out every hour checking in with hotels and venues,” said LaChandra Butler Burks, Atlanta’s chief operating officer. “Our police recruits were visiting high-rises every hour on the hour to check on our seniors.”

There were also signs that parts of the city were returning to normal. Megan Thee Stallion’s Sunday night performance was expected to go on as scheduled at State Farm Arena. Atlanta United’s soccer match against Charlotte was also expected to happen as planned Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, though with limited food and beverage options.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was operating normally after reporting low water pressure in some of its restrooms Saturday.

Emory University Hospital Midtown issued a statement Sunday saying it was “moving to normal operations.” Ambulances have also resumed normal service and the hospital will be able to operate on regular schedules for outpatient doctor appointments, procedures and surgeries Monday.

Grady Memorial also released a statement Sunday: “Water service at Grady has been restored and water pressure has increased significantly. We will continue to provide bottled water to patients and staff as we remain under a boil water advisory. All patient appointments, procedures, and surgeries will return to normal operations on Monday, June 3.

We are thankful for our team, who has gone above and beyond to ensure patient safety and to continue delivering exceptional care during this time. We also appreciate the City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management working to resolve this issue.”

Nationwide, a water main break happens every two minutes and an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water are lost each day, enough to fill more than 9,000 swimming pools, according to a 2021 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

That report gave the nation’s drinking water infrastructure a C-, up from a D in 2017. The improvement came, according to the report, as water agencies significantly picked up their pace in replacing waterlines.

Atlanta’s woes highlight the importance of investing in and maintaining such infrastructure, said Tom Dobbins, chief executive officer of the Washington-based Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies.

“It underscores the critical nature that water plays in our lives,” he said in an interview Sunday, adding: “My heart goes out to the people of Atlanta for what you are going through.”

Pam Burnett, executive director of the Georgia Association of Water Professionals, said she felt “heartsick” about Atlanta’s crisis.

“Water professionals, like medical professionals, put their full effort to ‘stop the bleeding’ in an emergency situation to keep the crisis from getting worse,” she wrote in an email. “Of course, the hope is that the line break can be brought under control quickly and notice to the public can follow with enough detail to explain the situation.

“Major and multiple line breaks are incredibly rare and difficult to address, and it’s frustrating for the public… and especially hard on the water professionals working in the trenches with everyone above them getting angry.”

Atlanta area resident Lisa Loomis said her relatives have closed two restaurants since Friday, one in Glenwood Park and one on West Peachtree Street.

“All the staff loses out on the weekend, not just the business itself,” she said.

Water flows on West Peachtree Street in front of McCray's Tavern Midtown on Sunday.

Credit: David Aaro /

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Credit: David Aaro /

Other businesses had better luck. Despite a large stream of water flowing in front of McCray’s Tavern Midtown on West Peachtree, its Sunday brunch went on. Manager Mauricio Tarver said the tavern was on a different water line that wasn’t impacted.

“We missed it,” he said, appearing thankful. “We’re good.”

Stan Reecy, who had just returned from his honeymoon in South Africa, was dismayed to discover he was among the Midtown Atlanta homeowners under a boil-water advisory. The water main break on West Peachtree Street is about 500 feet from his home.

Midtown resident Stan Reecy is seen in front of a water main break at the corner of 11th Street and West Peachtree Street on Sunday.

Credit: David Aaro /

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Credit: David Aaro /

On Sunday, he stood in front of Eleventh Street Pub, where a window appeared to be shattered from the water main break. A wooden board has now replaced that window. Security guards watched the entrance.

“Definitely a little shocking to see it right up the street from me,” he said.

By Sunday afternoon, water was back flowing in the West End area, but the previous two days had been hard, especially for Derrick Avery. For six years, Avery and his family have lived on Rose Circle near White Street, but this weekend they had to leave for his mother’s home in Greenbriar so his family could use the bathroom. They took water pots for filling.

Avery has eight children, ranging from one to 14. The baby was fine, but it was difficult to manage the younger children without water, he said. Because they were not able to cook, the family was forced to eat out, putting an unexpected $200 dent in the family’s budget.

When the water stopped flowing Friday, Avery called the city’s 311 nonemergency number, staying on hold for an hour before hanging up. He said he was never able to reach anyone for answers. It was inconvenient, he said, “but we made it work.”

Nearby on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard and across from The Mall West End, hairstylists Jacqueline Glover and Travis Campbell worked hard to make up for the lack of business the previous two days.

“It was like the pandemic all over again,” said Campbell, who has worked in the West End area for the past 16 years, including the past few in The Suites at West End.

When the water slowed Friday, the two attempted to continue working as they could, using bottled water to rinse out shampoo and hair dye. The stylists bought about 20 gallons of water to try and keep going. But they were eventually forced to close.

“Fridays and Saturdays are big for us. This really hurt us and our clients,” Glover said.

Around the corner, West End Soul Kitchen owner Martin Mendes said his business was returning to normal and serving up the specialties he has made for the past four years. When water service stopped Friday and Saturday, he switched to a limited menu.

“This community is on the lower (economic) end of things, people are struggling just to get by,” Mendes said. “It put people here in a bad situation.”

AJC staff writers Christopher A. Daniel, Janel Davis and Helena Oliviero contributed to this report.