By Katie Fallon
The city of Sandy Springs found itself in a water crisis—which began Thursday Feb. 15 and lasted through the weekend until Tuesday Feb. 20—that affected at one point almost all of the city’s 86,000 residents and over which the city had very little control.
Much of the “crisis” over the five days evolved from residents and business operators not being sure whether or not they would have water, how long they might be without water if they were to lose it and whether or not they were supposed to boil water before using it for drinking, bathing or preparing foods.
At one point, a map of the affected area on the city’s web site and that of the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management, covered almost every square mile of the city. By Tuesday morning, small sections of Sandy Springs remained under a boil water advisory.
The chaos began Feb. 15, when a 48-inch water main broke near GA 400 and Holcomb Bridge Road. It was apparently punctured by a drill. That water main serves a majority of Sandy Springs. Following the break, most of the city’s roughly 86,000 resident were advised by the Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management to fill their bathtubs and other containers with water for use because water pressure was expected to drop.
Mayor Eva Galambos said residents remained fairly calm about the water crisis, although she said some complained the city did not do enough to keep residents updated. Galambos kept hospitals and restaurants advised of emergency measures to take even though the water main break was under another city’s jurisdiction.
The major concern for the Department of Watershed Management was ensuring the hospitals serviced by the broken water main had water, said Janet Ward, a spokesperson for the department. Northside Hospital, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Scottish Rite are all dependent on that water.
The pumping station on Moores Mill Road, that serves the Buckhead area , ran in full swing, pumping water uphill toward Sandy Springs to ensure the hospitals did not lose water. Still the hospitals operated with precaution.
Northside Hospital spokesman Russ Davis said they declared a “Code Dry,” which is an internal classification for having no water, even though there was never a time the hospital had no water, and they never even had a boil water advisory. Davis said that the hospital began cancelling non-emergency surgeries to cut down on the large amount of water used when doctors “scrub in” for surgery. Non-emergency surgeries at Northside are included in the total of 120 to 150 surgeries the hospital performs every day.
John McDonald, the director of safety and security at Northside Hospital said although they never lost service or had a boil water advisory, an emergency task force was formed to respond in case anything happened.
City officials from both Atlanta and Sandy Springs were dedicated to ensuring patients at the hospital remained safe. Even just notifying Sandy Springs residents to help conserve water was important, McDonald said, as the less water residents used, the more water the hospital was guaranteed. “It’s the little things that help,” he said.
In fact, McDonald said, Northside Hospital had recently purchased its own water filter to filter water from a well on-site in case an event like what happened last weekend occurred.
Some restaurant owners were frustrated with an unpredictable water situation on Sunday evening.
Jesse Rusinski, chef de cuisine at Food 101, said the Roswell Road restaurant had to shut down operations approximately three hours before the normal 10 p.m. closing time on Sunday. He said problems were exacerbated when, in addition to having to boil drinking water, the restaurant had to close its restrooms because toilets could not flush.
Food 101 was able to get around their drinking water problems by purchasing bottled water from the Kroger across the street, but Rusinski said once the toilets began malfunctioning, there was no alternative to closing because of the combined risks to the patrons.
“You don’t want to risk getting someone sick,” Rusinski said.
Brickery Grill and Bar owner Bruce Alterman said he experienced a similar predicament shortly after 7 p.m. Sunday. Beginning Friday evening and continuing throughout the weekend, the Brickery was boiling water and buying ice and soft drinks from a grocery store. It finally lost water completely on Sunday, its busiest time for family dining.
Alterman said there was already a 30-minute wait in effect Sunday when the restaurant’s toilets were blocked off and the eatery began to close. Just 20 minutes later, however, the water came back on, but not before some patrons left.
Alterman estimates he lost 15 percent of his dinner revenue on Sunday and 30 percent on Friday because of the inconvenience and the hype surrounding the water advisory.
Rusinksi said Food 101 considered itself lucky because its problems did not begin as expected on Friday evening. Similarly, he said most dinner reservations were earlier in the evening so the dining room was not as crowded as it could have been.
Alterman said he does not completely blame Watershed Management.
“It was so hard to get proper communication,” he said. “But I understand this was a problem they didn’t cause.”
The mayor said she believed a lack of good record-keeping led to the snafu and subsequent miscommunication.
One group that seemed to benefit from the water advisory was supermarkets. Brenda Reid, media and community relations manager for Atlanta-area Publix stores, said because boiling water was such an inconvenience, Publix experienced an increase in bottled water sales.
Tova Fruchtman contributed to this report.