Atlanta water woes extend into fourth day as city finally cuts off leak gushing into streets

Jun 3, 2024, 10:14 AM | Updated: 2:58 pm

ATLANTA (AP) — For at least some residents, Atlanta’s water problems weren’t over Monday.

Milena Franco, who lives in the city’s Midtown neighborhood, said she and her husband had water all weekend. But Monday morning, the flow was cut off, as Franco discovered when she tried to take a shower.

“I got in the shower and I just cried for a little bit,” Franco said.

City officials said water was shut down in the immediate neighborhood as part of an effort to stanch the flow from a broken main that had been gushing a river into streets since Friday night.

The geyser finally dried up around sunrise Monday, after officials trucked in parts from Alabama under a police escort. But a swath of the city remained under an order to boil water before drinking it, even in areas where pressure had been restored after a first mammoth leak was fixed Saturday. The area under the boil water order shrank drastically Monday afternoon, but the days of outages had some residents frustrated with the pace of repairs.

“We are laser-focused on this problem and my administration understands how critical water is for our lifeline in this city,” Dickens told reporters at the site of the water main break Monday.

But his news conference ended before reporters could ask all their questions because resident Rhett Scircle was asking the questions residents in nearby buildings wanted to know.

“When will the water be back on? Is there any estimated timeline? We live right here!” Scircle yelled at Department of Watershed Management Commissioner Al Wiggins Jr.

Wiggins, who has been commissioner for less than a month, declined to estimate when water would be flowing again, as backhoes dug in a hole behind him. Officials provided no estimates of how many residents were still affected or how many had been affected at peak.

Atlanta’s water outages are the latest failures as cities across the country work to shore up faltering infrastructure. A 2022 crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, which has a long-troubled water system, left many residents without safe running water for weeks.

Atlanta has spent billions in recent years to upgrade its aging sewer and water systems, including a tunnel drilled through 5 miles (8 kilometers) of rock to store more than 30 days of water. Last month, voters approved continuing a 1-cent sales tax to pay for water and sewer work. The city historically dumped untreated sewage into creeks and the Chattahoochee River, until a federal court order to stop.

Wiggins said Monday that “there’s always ongoing work” on the city’s water system. Later, he told City Council members that there will be a comprehensive inspection of the entire system.

The outage hasn’t affected the entire city of 500,000 — many areas in Atlanta’s northern and southern ends never lost water pressure and never faced a boil order. But for tens of thousands of residents, trouble began Friday when a junction of three water mains sprang a massive leak west of downtown. Wiggins said that leak was caused by corrosion and was tricky to repair because the three pipes created a confined space for work.

The Midtown leak began hours later. Wiggins said city workers still aren’t sure why it happened, but said it to was difficult to fix because it happened at a junction of two large water pipes, and the valve to turn them off was inaccessible because of the gushing liquid. The city instead dug holes in four directions a block away to cut the flow to the Midtown leak, although Scircle and some other residents said they saw little work for much of Saturday and Sunday.

Water pressure began to be restored early Sunday for many, and some big events, like a concert and an Atlanta United soccer match took place downtown Sunday.

Some high-rise office buildings remained closed Monday, saying there wasn’t enough water pressure to run air conditioning units and deliver water to high floors.

Dickens, a first-term Democratic mayor, was in Memphis, Tennessee, conducting a political fundraiser for his 2025 reelection campaign Friday and did not return until Saturday. Spokesperson Michael Smith said that Dickens also met with Memphis Mayor Paul Young and other leaders, that officials didn’t yet realize the severity of problems when he left Friday and that Dickens was in “constant communication” with Atlanta officials.

Many residents have attacked the city’s response, saying officials continued failing to communicate clearly, even after Dickens apologized Saturday and promised updates at two-hour intervals.

Jose Franco, Milena Franco’s husband, said he and his wife had kept drinking tap water for a time because they didn’t know about the boil water order. Both he and his wife said the water cutoff in their apartment took them by surprise before dawn Monday.

“If they know there’s not going to be water for a few days, they should provide more free water,” Jose Franco said. And he noted “the elephant in the room” — the inability to flush toilets.

Marie Moore, who lives in a high-rise apartment building for seniors and people with disabilities, wheeled her walker to a fire station in Midtown to pick up a case of bottled water. Firefighters there were wrestling three more pallets of water off a truck, saying they were handing out cases quickly.

Moore, whose water slowed to a trickle over the weekend, said the city needs to tap more federal money to improve infrastructure.

“It seems like everything is falling apart,” she said.

Dickens declared a state of emergency so the city could buy materials and hire workers without following purchasing laws, but a spokesperson said there’s no estimate yet of how much the emergency has cost the city.

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Atlanta water woes extend into fourth day as city finally cuts off leak gushing into streets