Water, water everywhere, but not a mayor in sight

Workers take care of a water main break at Joseph E. Boone Boulevard and James P. Brawley Drive in Atlanta on Friday, May 31, 2024. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Workers take care of a water main break at Joseph E. Boone Boulevard and James P. Brawley Drive in Atlanta on Friday, May 31, 2024. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Even before Mayor Andre Dickens was sworn into office in 2022, he seemed to know that communicating early and often would be essential to his success.

The City of Atlanta was facing an existential crisis then — a threat from a well-funded Buckhead group to carve the wealthiest section of the city away from Atlanta to create a new Buckhead City. A secession would collapse the city’s tax base and decimate its reputation. So by 7 a.m. the day after he won the election, Dickens was on the phone with the late House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican, establishing a relationship and telling Ralston he wanted to work with him . That message delivered to state leaders paved the way for Dickens to eventually kill the Buckhead City effort with their help.

The mayor’s early tenure featured similar communication with residents. News conferences from crime scenes showed he was delivering on his promise to address Atlanta’s violent crime. Events in neighborhoods said he was engaged. Occasionally, it felt like he was everywhere all the time.

But fast forward two and a half years, and we’ve got a mayor whose strongest attribute has all but disappeared. Five days and counting into the citywide water crisis, and Dickens’ appearances and communications have mirrored the water supply itself — nothing, then a trickle, and, once restored, hard to swallow.

One decision will probably haunt Dickens for years — to leave town for a campaign fundraiser in Memphis as the water crisis began. Dickens’ team had said it wasn’t clear Friday afternoon when he left that three simultaneous water main breaks that morning were going to balloon into the emergency they became, so he stuck to his plans to go to Tennessee.

You can see hoping for the best, but by Friday afternoon we knew the water supply had been damaged in large portions of the city. It was so serious that dozens of intown restaurants were forced to close by midafternoon, while State Farm Arena announced the Megan Thee Stallion concert had to be canceled.

By 11 p.m. Friday , Emory Midtown decided it would need to divert incoming ambulances to other local hospitals. If the mayor’s office didn’t know it had a crisis on its hands earlier, it should have by then. But twelve hours passed overnight without another update from the city, and still, no word from the mayor. He didn’t return to Atlanta until 1 p.m. the next day.

A leader missing in action can do political damage for months or years after the fact. President George W. Bush had to work for years to repair the damage he did by failing to go to New Orleans at the height of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, choosing instead to fly over the city in Air Force One.

Closer to home, Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed were both hounded for their limited communications ahead of an ice storm in 2014, which left thousands stranded on iced-over roads and more sleeping in grocery stores overnight.

Conversely, a mayor on the scene and communicating can make all the difference. Deal got his chance for a do-over with another winter storm shortly after the first. A communications plan he had laid out earlier was followed to the letter.

I was living in New York in 2005 when a series of bomb threats were called into the New York subway system. The morning after, Mayor Michael Blomberg began to ride the subway to work with a news crew in tow. As a billionaire, he had multiple private cars to ferry him around the city. But the image of Bloomberg hanging on a subway strap told New Yorkers the system was safe enough for him, so it was safe enough for us. I never stopped riding the subway.

Nobody expects a mayor to prevent all crises from happening, but they do expect a leader to tell them what’s going on and to be with them when it’s happening.

If you ever need to be reminded how crucial water is for basic living, try going without it as many Atlantans have. Along with drinking and cooking, water is essential for flushing toilets, doing dishes, making baby formula, and even running air conditioning.

Dickens didn’t show up until a news conference Saturday afternoon. By then, signs had been posted on telephone poles in Midtown asking, “Has anyone seen or heard from Mayor Andre Dickens?”

The mayor apologized at the news conference for his earlier silence and promised more constant communication in the future for residents.

But that promise lasted until Monday, when Dickens left another news conference without taking questions, including from a Midtown resident still without water. “When will the water be turned back on?” he yelled. “What are you going to do if one of the high rises catches on fire?”

Those are two great questions, but Dickens answered neither. A news conference without questions is really just an announcement. And a major city like Atlanta, with aging infrastructure, explosive growth, and a mayor out sight during a massive water outage is more than a communications crisis — it’s a leadership crisis.

Dickens showed early on he has the instincts and the ability to do better. He owes it to the city to be the mayor they elected, especially when they need him most.