The first indication of a massive water break that crippled DeKalb County’s water system was in the wee hours of Wednesday morning at a water treatment plant in Dunwoody.
Monitors noticed that demand on the system was growing at an hour when most folks should be asleep. Once water began to pool on Buford Highway, the location of the leak — a 48-inch pipe that serves as a main water supply line — was identified. It took several hours but it was contained around 9 a.m., although the effects lasted much longer.
The break happened in Doraville near Interstate 285, but the entire county of over 700,000 residents was put under a boil water advisory that could remain in place for days. Schools, government offices and businesses closed due to loss in water pressure although most said they would be back on the usual schedule for Thursday.
The break caused Buford Highway to be shut down in both directions though morning and evening rush hour, until around 7 p.m. At least three businesses flooded.
Reggie Wells, acting director of DeKalb’s Watershed Management Department, said during an evening press conference that water pressure was returning to normal and repairs were underway. As he spoke near the site of the spill, dump trucks dropped off loads of rocks that will replace soggy mud underneath the broken main.
“We’re continuing to make progress, and we hope to have the line repaired in the next day or so,” Wells said. “We plan to work around the clock, and we won’t stop until we do just that.”
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The cause of the break is not determined, but Wells said it may have been caused by a storm sewer pipe running parallel or perpendicular that became damaged and later caused the water main to also collapse. Workers won’t know until they drain all the water and can inspect the damaged 60-foot portion of the pipe, and CEO Mike Thurmond has pledged a full investigation.
There were signs Wednesday evening that nearby businesses had recovered, DeKalb Emergency Management Agency Director Sue Loeffler pointed out during the news conference. She noted that a coin laundry within eyesight had customers inside and tumbling loads.
Earlier, water was shut off to businesses and homes in the area because the damaged pipe was one of four main water transmission lines. As work-arounds were put in place and the system was brought back online, water pressure began to recover in the afternoon.
Still, thousands woke up in homes where faucets produced no water or a trickle. Others arrived to work only to be sent home.
Sally Smith lives near Oakhurst, over 10 miles away from the water main break. But she spent Wednesday home with her 10- and 7-year-old kids after their day at The Museum School of Avondale Estates got canceled.
They were both sick, too, so the lack of easily available water for hydration purposes was a pain, Smith said. And the change in schedule forced her to “plop them in front of Minecraft,” a popular video game, while she continued her ongoing job search.
“It’s just one of those things like, ‘Well, this is what we’re doing today guys,’” Smith said.
Every public school in the county either closed or dismissed early. Perimeter Mall in Dunwoody went dark. So did restaurants in neighborhoods miles away from the break, including downtown Decatur.
Some businesses and their employees will not be able to recoup what they lost, such as restaurants where workers are paid by the hour and with customers’ tips. And the economy is increasingly reliant on contract workers whose compensation is wholly dependent on how many hours they work.
In many places across DeKalb, bottled water was in short supply. Stores and gas stations sold out. Wild Heaven Craft Beers in Decatur offered free filtered water to whoever showed up with empty containers to fill.
DeKalb County Animal Services, located at 3280 Chamblee Dunwoody Road in Chamblee, put a plea on Facebook that it has hundreds of animals that were in urgent need of water. People from as far away as Texas reported that they had scheduled deliveries, and within a few hours the shelter said it had all it needed.
Medical facilities across the county turned ambulances away from their emergency rooms and cancelled non-emergency procedures including chemotherapy, radiation and dialysis appointments. Elective surgeries and routine testing were also postponed.
A spokeswoman for DeKalb Medical Hospital said the facility would use bottled water until the county lifted the boiled water advisory, and the hospital staff is “going to monitor how long it’s still running brown.”
The impact stretched into neighboring Henry County were about 750 customers could experience issues through the weekend. Henry County Water Authority officials said that they switched the affected homes and businesses — primarily in the county’s northwest corner — to the Henry water system while DeKalb repairs the break.
While customers in the affected area will have water, it will not have the pressure they are used to, Tony Carnell, deputy manager of the Henry County Water Authority, said. Henry County also said it expected the main break to impact fire department operations, saying it has notified the emergency services that it expects “marginal fire flow protection during this period of time.”
-- Staff writers Tyler Estep, Michael Kanell, Leon Stafford, Ariel Hart, Mitchell Northam, Amanda Coyne and Brad Schrade contributed to this report.
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