Six days of water woes in Atlanta: A chronology

From the first break to all-clear, how the water breaks played out in Downtown and Midtown Atlanta
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 / AJC)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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 / AJC)

It was about 8:30 a.m. on May 31 when water burst through the pavement in west Atlanta and flooded a low-lying stretch of Joseph E. Boone Boulevard.

There were more than 500 water breaks or leaks in the city last year alone and, initially, the fountain of water seemed like just another one of them.

But it would turn out to be anything but. The ruptured transmission line halted water to a huge swath of downtown Atlanta. By late evening, another major burst pipe was spewing water into the streets, this time in Midtown. A string of other smaller leaks also popped up around the city sending repair crews on what resembled a high-stakes game of whack-a-mole.

Atlanta plunged into a full-blown crisis, one that unfolded over six days as city officials scrambled to get the water flowing again to residents, businesses, hotels, government buildings, tourist attractions and other sites.

The escalating problem created a political headache for Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, who was out of state raising money for his reelection as the water woes worsened. It revealed vulnerabilities in the aging web of pipes that snake underneath the city streets. And it raised questions about whether the city has done enough — and spent enough — to keep the vital arteries of its water delivery system in shape.

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 / AJC)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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 / AJC)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

‘Completely out of water’

There are 3,000 linear miles of water and sewer pipes in Atlanta — roughly the distance from Atlanta to Juneau, Alaska. When repair crews from the Department of Watershed Management showed up Friday morning at Boone Boulevard, in the Vine City neighborhood west of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they quickly discovered that the break there was in a particularly bad spot — at the junction of three busy water mains which feed much of Atlanta, including downtown.

The damaged transmission pipe was more than eight decades old and about 4-feet by 3-feet in size, a little larger than a washing machine.

In order to assess the problem, repair crews needed to stop the water. As they turned off the valves, water pressure plummeted for homes and businesses. Stunned Atlantans watched as the water flowing from their taps slowed to a trickle and sometimes stopped altogether.

At the Daily Cafe in Inman Park, staff worked until they were “completely out of water.”

”We had our taps dripping,” said barista Darcy Pierce said, who watched as the spigot slowly ran dry.

Grady Memorial Hospital, the region’s Level 1 trauma center, canceled appointments. The Georgia Aquarium and other tourist attractions shut down. The Atlanta Public School system would end up canceling programming for three days. Firefighters distributed bottled water.

The Department of Watershed Management first posted on social media about the outage a little before noon, more than three hours after the leak was first reported. About three hours later the department posted an advisory urging Atlantans in the affected area to boil water before drinking it.

As workers hustled to staunch the flow, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens was heading to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for a 2 p.m. flight to Memphis. Dickens was scheduled to meet with city officials there about ways to combat violent crime.

He was also using the stop to scoop up cash for his re-election bid next year. New Memphis Mayor Paul Young was among the headliners at the Hattiloo Theater where donors contributed between $250 and $1,800 to “Andre for Atlanta.”

A new front opens in Midtown

As repairs continued on Boone Boulevard, city officials got an unwelcome surprise around 10 p.m. when another geyser erupted and began drenching the intersection of 11th and West Peachtree streets.

Mayor Andre Dickens and Al Wiggins, Jr., (right) Commissioner of Department of Watershed Management, confer with staff at Joseph E. Boone Boulevard and James P. Brawley Drive, Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Atlanta. A water main that ruptured, causing thousands to lose access to water around Atlanta, was repaired Saturday morning but water may take several hours to be restored. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

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Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

Sergeant Jathan Dortch (right) and other Atlanta firefighters unload bottled waters which will be distributed at Atlanta Fire Station #16, Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Atlanta. A water main that ruptured, causing thousands to lose access to water around Atlanta, was repaired Saturday morning but water may take several hours to be restored.(Hyosub Shin / AJC)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Tourists stand outside Georgia Aquarium after they found out it closed due to water pressure issue, Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Atlanta. A water main that ruptured, causing thousands to lose access to water around Atlanta, was repaired Saturday morning but water may take several hours to be restored. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Many Atlantans woke up on Saturday to find they still had no water. Many of those who did still needed to boil it. The impacted area stretched from I-285 on the west all the way to Decatur in the east, maps showed.

While social media posts from the city and watershed department had picked up steam, Dickens’ first social media post came at 11:20 a.m. Saturday, more than 24 hours after the crisis began.

“Oh you decided to show up? Thanks,” read one response.

“This has been a disaster from a leadership standpoint,” read another. “People understand pipes break but your silence on updating the people is unacceptable. Please do better.”

As the pipe in Midtown continued to pump gallon after gallon of water into the street, restaurants were shuttered. Some residents ventured outside with buckets to collect water from the streets to flush their toilets.

At least one person seemed to enjoy the disruption, tubing down the rushing river that was West Peachtree Street.

By late morning, Department of Watershed Management Commissioner Al Wiggins Jr. told reporters that repairs at the site of the original burst on Boone Boulevard were complete. A transmission pipe had decayed and corroded around a fitting, he said.

But the the water still wasn’t back. That’s because restoring service in a big system like Atlanta’s takes time.

Dan Hartnett, chief advocacy officer of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, said workers must first turn off the water to the impacted area and excavate so they can get a look at the damage. Some repairs can be welded or patched. Other times, a whole section of pipe must be cut out and replaced.

Once the fix is made, water pressure in the system must be increased slowly, Hartnett said. Move too fast and the water rushing back in can rip new tears in the pipe’s weak spots, creating more work. In Georgia, after the pressure is back, the state Environmental Protection Division requires 18 hours to test the water for sediment or other contaminants before a boil water advisory can is lifted and the water is again safe to drink.

City officials said Saturday that the two big leaks — on the west side and in Midtown — were not connected. And they said a flurry of a smaller busted pipes around the city were also unrelated and somewhat commonplace in a city where some pipes are date back to the 19th Century.

“We experience water main breaks all throughout the day,” Wiggins said.

Dickens, meanwhile, flew back to Atlanta. Wearing a zip-up vest and a hard hat, he showed up at the scene around 2 p.m. and immediately apologized for poor communication. He explained that when he left for Memphis, the situation seemed to be under control.

“We thought we were going to be resolving this. Just to be honest, I thought the solution was closer than it actually was,” he said.

But he continued to face backlash. On Monday the mayor was quickly ushered away from a packed news conference in Midtown after one angry resident complained about the city’s lack of timeline for repairs.

At 8:33 p.m. Saturday, the city reported that water has been restored to the Boone Boulevard service area. But residents continued to report that they still didn’t have service. It would still be days before things were completely back to normal.

Meanwhile, watershed officials made a troubling discovery. In Midtown, repair workers couldn’t reach the valve needed to stop the gushing water because it was directly under the geyser. A specialized piece of equipment needed to halt the flow was nowhere to be found in Georgia.

Instead the piece needed to be shipped in from Alabama. Aiming to get the piece to its destination as soon as possible, Georgia State Patrol met the truck carrying the part at the state line and escorted it to Atlanta - lights flashing to help maneuver around traffic.

‘This was an act of negligence’

The Atlanta City Council already had a meeting scheduled Monday. It turned out to be a doozy.

“This is was not an act of God,” resident Devin Barrington-Ward said during the public comment section. “This was an act of negligence. This was an act of irresponsibility. This was an act of not being prepared. How many times is the city of Atlanta going to be caught with its pants down?”

Dickens appeared before the council and said he was working with the Army Corps of Engineers and pledged $5 million to help businesses who had been impacted by the outage.

Since his return from Memphis, Dickens had been visibly out and about. He was pictured visiting senior citizen centers and thanking water repair crews. A video was posted of him surveying work the Midtown water break site at 2 a.m.

“Residents of Atlanta, we are on the case,” he said.

“(I’m) so ready for this to be over. So are the residents around here,” he said later that day.

After they were able to turn off the torrent of water in Midtown, repair crews could see what they were dealing with.

They hoisted out a rusty-looking hunk of pipe and lay it on the street like a trophy. A replacement was put into place underground. As water pressure began to rise, workers paved over the gaping hole in the pavement.

Five days after the saga began, water was flowing again.

“We are pleased to announce that water service has been fully restored across our city,” Dickens said Wednesday morning.

One last thing remained.

The city said in a social media post near the end of the week that environmental testing was complete, boil water advisories had been lifted and that water was drinkable again. The post included a link to a news release offering more information.

The link didn’t work.

-Staff Writers David Aaro, Riley Bunch, Sara Gregory, Henri Hollis, Caroline Silva, Alexis Stevens, Olivia Wakim and Reed Williams, contributed reporting to this piece

Water continues to flood out of the broken water main at 11th and West Peachtree street. Sunday, June 2nd, 2024 (Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constituion)

Credit: Ben Hendren for the AJC

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Credit: Ben Hendren for the AJC

Crews work to repair a water line at 11th and peachtree street. Water continues to flood out of the broken water main at 11th and West Peachtree street. Sunday, June 2nd, 2024 (Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constituion)

Credit: Ben Hendren for the AJC

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Credit: Ben Hendren for the AJC

In this iron image, crews are spotted continuing to work on a broken main on West Peachtree Street at 11th Street in Midtown on Monday afternoon, the fourth day of the crisis’s beginning.
(Miguel Martinez / AJC)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Atlanta, Mayor Andre Dickens said Monday that he took criticism from the public Òto heart.Ó Crews are continuing to work on a broken main on West Peachtree Street in Midtown, with nearby residents warned of impacts to their water service as the crisis reached its fourth day Monday, June 3, 2024. Water had been gushing out of the broken main until Monday morning, when workers were seen pumping out water. (John Spink/AJC)

Credit: John Spink/AJC

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Credit: John Spink/AJC

A sign reads, “Boil Water Advisory Still in Effect,” with a drawing of water being boiled and a stick figure with a thumbs up at the main entrance to the restaurant, Sun in my Belly, in the Kirkwood neighborhood, Monday, June 3, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Alma Lott speaks on the city’s water failure during public comment at a city council meeting at City Hall in Atlanta on Monday, June 3, 2024. The water crisis has reached its fourth day following the breakage of several pipes. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Devin Barrington-Ward speaks on the city’s water failure during public comment at a city council meeting at City Hall in Atlanta on Monday, June 3, 2024. The water crisis has reached its fourth day following the breakage of several pipes. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Here one of the pipes removed from the hole is set aside on the street while a large 30-inch pipe was seen being lowered into the hole at 11th and West Peachtree Street Tuesday morning, June 4, 2024. According to the city, the Department of Watershed Management was ready to start installing and conducting the remaining steps to restore water service. (John Spink/AJC)

Credit: John Spink/AJC

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Credit: John Spink/AJC

A large 30-inch pipe was seen being lowered into the hole at 11th and West Peachtree Street Tuesday morning, June 4, 2024. According to the city, the Department of Watershed Management was ready to start installing and conducting the remaining steps to restore water service. (John Spink/AJC)

Credit: John Spink/AJC

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Credit: John Spink/AJC

Workers continued to put the finishing touches on the filled in water main hole Wednesday morning, June 5, 2024 following the city’s announcement that water had been restored following the break on West Peachtree Street and 11th Street. The city said the system was being brought back online slowly to “allow system pressures to build.” (John Spink/AJC)

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink

Workers continued to put the finishing touches on the filled in water main hole Wednesday morning, June 5, 2024 following the city’s announcement that water had been restored following the break on West Peachtree Street and 11th Street. The city said the system was being brought back online slowly to “allow system pressures to build.” (John Spink/AJC)

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink