Like thousands of her fellow DeKalb County denizens, Nancy Eilen woke up Wednesday morning, tried to turn on the water and sighed.
Then she got busy, figuring out what to do.
She wasn’t surprised by the disruption, she later told a reporter. “But I am disappointed.”
Sometime around 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, a four-foot water main broke near Buford Highway and I-285 in Doraville, creating a lake on one of metro Atlanta’s major arteries. It was miles away from Eilen’s home, but the effects rippled throughout the entirety of DeKalb. Georgia’s fourth-largest county spent much of the day dealing with water outages and low pressure, not to mention concerns about sanitary conditions.
MORE: Live updates on the massive DeKalb County water break
Thousands of people left home shower- or coffee-less, and traffic quickly became a mess. Schools closed (city of Decatur) or dismissed early (DeKalb County), leaving parents scrambling to make accommodations. DeKalb Medical Center diverted ambulances, canceled elective surgeries and dug into its mandated stores of bottled water. The local FBI field office trucked in portable toilets, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention closed up shop. So did Perimeter Mall. There were the typical runs on grocery store bottled water.
For her part, Eilen started her morning by finding a few stray bottles of water to make formula for critters she's been taking care of for a wildlife refuge. She told her son, a freshman at Decatur High School, to stay in bed. She wandered over to a friend's house near Kirkwood — not far from her family's home in Oakhurst, but safely within the confines of the city of Atlanta — and filled up five-gallon barrels with fresh water for herself and her fellow humans.
She made sure the guidelines for which toilets to use for what were very clear.
Businesses and restaurants were also faced with tough decisions.
The Flying Biscuit location in Town Brookhaven kept normal business hours Wednesday and was “super busy,” despite using paper products instead of dishes and offering only bottled drinks, a spokeswoman reported. But the water main break disrupted business hours for other restaurants in the same shopping center and elsewhere.
MORE: A timeline of recent DeKalb County water breaks
At Lucky’s Burger & Brew, a sign taped to the front door alerted customers that the restaurant would delay its opening: “We apologize – due to a large water main break, we cannot in good conscious (sic) open and risk the health of our guests. We are monitoring the situation and will open shortly after the County gets the repairs done and the Board of Health gives us the go ahead.”
Lucky’s general manager Michael Livingston and six other employees had shown up for work as usual. But after waiting hours for the water to come back on, he finally sent everyone home around 11:15 a.m.
“The water came on 15 minutes later,” Livingston said, shaking his head. “Everybody is on their way back. We are going to shoot for 1 p.m. to open. But we have to do everything to make sure everything is safe and clean.”
In Dunwoody, Da Vinci’s Donuts co-owner Ryan Boon said he was able to open on schedule by buying every last bottle of water from the Walgreen’s next door. He and his crew managed to assemble enough to make doughnuts and coffee through Friday while hoping the issue wouldn’t linger.
“It’s sad to me that we can’t do a better job with our infrastructure,” Boon said. “It feels like it’s one thing after another after another in DeKalb County. I feel like people see that and they start to feel like they don’t want to live or do business in DeKalb County.”
MORE: DeKalb Watershed Management director resigns with scathing letter
Wednesday afternoon, water pressure was “slowly” being restored to much of the county, officials said. But a boil water advisory remained in place.
DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond vowed a full-scale investigation.
Outside a Walmart in Chamblee, Alajuwon Thomas was loading several cases of bottled water into his car so he could take them back to the local car dealership where he worked.
“It’s kind of like a winter weather situation,” he said.
Indeed it was. Grocery stores throughout the county were pilfered for water throughout the day.
A Kroger near Decatur just left cases on pallets near the front door. By noon, shoppers at the Publix at Town Brookhaven had purchased the majority of bottled water on the normally well-stocked shelves.
“It’s DeKalb County,” Brookhaven resident Linda Young said as she put three gallon jugs of water in her shopping cart. “You never know how long it’ll take them to fix it.”
If there’s one thing DeKalb residents know how to deal with, though, it’s water issues. DeKalb’s government has been struggling for years to repair its aging water and sewer infrastructure.
In addition to years-long billing problems, the county has a history of main breaks and major sewage spills.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Wednesday that, in a resignation letter submitted less than 48 hours before the Buford Highway main break, DeKalb watershed director Scott Towler had accused county leadership of urging him to make decisions that violated federal and state laws.
“I would love to see maybe this incident really make a difference,” said Eilen, the Oakhurst mother and animal caregiver. “Obviously, the infrastructure needs some major overhauls. They just keep patching things that break.”
—AJC staffers Ligaya Figueras, Shane Harrison, Ariel Hart, Michael Kanell and J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.
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