A water main break in south Fulton County that left more than 100,000 people with low water pressure or no water at all for more than a day, including two dozen schools and scores of businesses, finally ended Tuesday afternoon. But a boil advisory was expected to stay in effect until late Wednesday.
The episode marks the latest significant failure of the aging water infrastructure system in a core area of metro Atlanta, and it comes nearly a year to the day after a large water main break in Doraville last March disrupted service across DeKalb County for more than two days.
The Fulton break was discovered around 1 p.m. Monday on a 30-inch transmission line at Fairburn Road near Cascade Road and affected people in Union City, Fairburn, Chattahoochee Hills and South Fulton. Atlanta’s department of watershed management, which delivers water to the south Fulton cities, originally expected the line to be repaired, and water service to be restored, before 7 a.m. Tuesday. But the five-foot stretch of line proved more difficult than anticipated to fix, and it wasn’t replaced until just before 5 p.m. Tuesday.
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At at least one elementary school, Evoline C. West in Fairburn, the water pressure was so low all day that toilets couldn’t flush. Parents were asked to send children to school with a bottle of water, said one parent, Sharon Russ, but the request came at 7:02 a.m. — after the school buses had already passed through her neighborhood.
Russ let her daughter, a fifth grader, stay home from school rather than risk her not being able to wash her hands, or flush the toilet, after teachers went from car to car in the morning drop-off line telling parents there was no water in the building. The disruption caused Russ to be late to work as she had take her daughter somewhere else to spend the day.
“That’s unacceptable,” Russ said. “They failed all their students today. They should have made that call last night. They could have made better decisions.”
In an email, Fulton County Schools spokesperson Susan Romanick said the decision was made to keep schools open so that children could have heat, meals and supervision, and parents wouldn’t have to scramble for childcare. Romanick said conversations with the city made it seem like the issues would be minor and temporary. Nevertheless, she said, the district kept students from using water fountains and brought bottled water to the schools.
‘Nobody got paid’
The city of Atlanta system, which also serves Sandy Springs, Union City, South Fulton, Hapeville, Fairburn and Chattahoochee Hills, has come under fire for persistent leaks — a 2017 audit found that the city loses as much as 30 percent of the water produced. Sandy Springs has said a number of its fire hydrants are often dry and has asked a mediator to help resolve a dispute over water rates.
Over the past 12 months, Atlanta has experienced 337 water main breaks on its system, according to water officials. There were four other water main breaks on Monday and Tuesday, but all of them were on smaller lines. Rukiya Campbell, a spokesperson for the department, said changing weather conditions and fluctuating pressure can cause the breaks, though no exact cause had been determined as of Tuesday afternoon.
In south Fulton County, the break of the 60-year-old main — which happened after a joint on the transmission line that came loose — disrupted lives and businesses. The Green Manor, a Union City buffet, had to close, said Cranston Davenport, the restaurant’s manager. With no water, there was no way to wash dishes or food.
The 30-year-old restaurant has been subject to boil-water advisories before, Davenport said, but has never had to shut down entirely because of water issues. He estimated the business brings in between $2,000 and $2,500 a day, and said that revenue was lost.
“Plus, nobody got paid today,” he said.
Gerald “Rusty” Todd said he found out his pawn shop in Fairburn wasn’t getting water when an employee told him that the toilet wouldn’t flush right.
Todd, who has run the downtown pawn shop for 42 years, said Monday afternoon that he’s had short blips in water service, but never this long.
“This is the worst it’s ever been,” he said.
From March 2018 | Water chief alleged chaos, mismanagement in DeKalb
The 71-year-old said he had to drive to Tyrone to get his employees Waffle House for lunch; there was nothing open nearby. For her part, Fairburn resident Carol Berry said she had to get creative to make a breakfast without water. She ate her bacon and eggs off a paper plate, but the mother of Kansas Chiefs star safety Eric Berry said the dishes she cooked with were still in the sink.
Governments were also affected. City hall in Union City was closed. In the city of South Fulton, the site of the break, part of Fairburn Road was closed while repairs were ongoing. Fulton County closed its South Fulton Service Center because it had no water pressure, and bottled water had to be delivered to the county’s jail in Union City. Chattahoochee Hills sent a tanker truck on its fire calls, in case there wasn’t enough water pressure in fire hydrants, and the fire agency agreed to support the city of Fairburn, too.
Rumblings about Atlanta controlling water service to the municipalities to its south have been going on for a decade, and this week’s brought even more urgency to that effort.
Fairburn, Palmetto and Union City have been trying for years to create their own water system, drawing from the Chattahoochee River. Palmetto Mayor Clark Boddie said the cities are waiting on the state’s Environmental Protection Division for permission to proceed; public comment on the requested permit for the South Fulton Municipal Regional Water and Sewer Authority begins on Wednesday. The cities already have millions of dollars at the ready to fund the project.
From December | Atlanta water outage linked to systemwide leaks
Fairburn Mayor Elizabeth Carr-Hurst said she was frustrated by the lack of communication about the break from Atlanta. She said she sent out a robocall to the nearly 5,000 water customers in her city of 15,500 residents. Still, as of early Tuesday afternoon she had heard little from Atlanta officials.
“We’re very discouraged here in Fairburn because we haven’t gotten any updates,” she said. “We’ve had to keep calling and keep calling and keep calling … not really getting any information.”
Fairburn pays about $150,000 a month to Atlanta to deliver roughly 30 million gallons of water to the southside city, and Carr-Hurst said she thinks the city of Atlanta needs to do a better job of communicating, especially during a crisis.
“I expect a level of service,” she said.
Similar concerns were echoed at the 25 Fulton County schools that started the day under a boil advisory. A statement from Fulton County Schools’ central office said a plan was in place that ensured students were safe.
Still, the day caused stress for some parents who worried about their children’s health without water. Sharease Hudson, Evoline C. West Elementary’s PTA president, said she was “pissed” that county education officials didn’t close the schools that were affected.
In a Tuesday email to parents, the principal at Evoline C. West Elementary said the district had originally been told water would be restored that morning. The school’s email said bottled water, hand sanitizer and wipes were available.
“It’s really irking me,” Hudson said. “This situation pushed me over the edge. ... It’s impacting a lot of people.”
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