TAMPA — A rodent, most likely a squirrel, chewing on an electric line at Tampa's water treatment plant Friday morning caused a power failure that led to an unprecedented 48-hour citywide boil-water notice for 560,000 people and businesses and left them scrambling to snap up bottled water to last through the weekend.
The effects were immediate and widespread: Water fountains disappeared under trash bags. Restaurant managers bumped into each other in lines as they stocked up on ice and bottled water. And residents across Hillsborough County tried to figure out if the notice affected them and, if it did, what exactly they could do with their tap water.
Until Monday morning, officials said, residents and businesses should boil any tap water used for drinking, cooking, washing fruits or vegetables, making ice or brushing teeth for at least a minute. This affects more than half a million people — about 100,000 of them outside city limits — who get their water from Tampa.
The citywide notice is a first, according to city Water Department director Brad Baird. It was caused by a series of events that Tampa Electric Co. spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs called a "perfect storm."
The problems began about 5:30 a.m., Tampa Electric said, when a small animal gnawed through a power line just outside the David L. Tippin Water Treatment Facility. The line is one of two that serves the plant. The second line failed about 1:30 p.m.
The utility said the second line failed because of a problem with a piece of city equipment called a switch gear. Baird said the second line failed because it was overloaded. The city's switch gear did burn out, he said, delaying the process of switching the plant to emergency power. The water treatment plant, which produces about 95 percent of the 68 million gallons of water per day consumed by Tampa water customers, has three generators to provide backup power. During that hour, some areas of Tampa lost water pressure.
The generators started powering the plant about 2:30 p.m. Tampa Electric restored electric service by 3:30 p.m. By then the damage was done, though, and the city had already begun the process of telling everyone on its water system to get bottled water or prepare to do a lot of boiling this weekend.
Shortly before 2:30 p.m., the city notified media and neighborhood leaders by e-mail and sent e-mail, text message and telephone alerts to 12,000 residents, businesses and others who had signed up for its mass-messaging system.
Areas served directly from the plant — including East Tampa, the Port of Tampa, Palmetto Beach and areas north to New Tampa — were more affected than the western side of the city's service area. The city's service area includes unincorporated parts of Town 'N Country, Lake Magdalene, and areas west and north of the University of South Florida.
Also affected were 3,400 Hillsborough County water system customers who receive water from the city of Tampa but get bills from the county. Those include 3,000 customers in Clair-Mel and another 400 around Sligh Avenue near King High School.
Normally, water pressure keeps pollutants from entering the 2,200 miles of underground pipes that carry water to the city's customers. But when the pressure drops, as it did on Friday, contaminants can get into the pipes. People who drink water that is tainted could come down with flu-like symptoms, officials said.
As a precaution, city officials said water customers should do one of following to ensure the safety of their water:
• Bring it to a rolling boil for one minute.
• Disinfect it chemically. Put eight drops of common household bleach, or about one-eighth of a teaspoon, into a gallon of tap water, shake and let stand for 30 minutes before drinking. If the water is cloudy, use 16 drops of bleach per gallon.
You can shower, bathe, shave and wash your hands with tap water, officials said, as long as you don't swallow it or get it in your eyes, nose or mouth. Keep showers short, though, and anyone with a recent surgical wound, weakened immune system or a chronic illness should consider using bottled or boiled water until the notice is lifted.
Confusion reigned at some restaurants, where managers reported city water employees told them they didn't need to alter their operations.
Todd Dziubek, general manager of Tampa Bay Brewing Co., said a city water employee told his restaurant there was no contaminated water in the system and the restaurant didn't need to heed the boil water notice. Dziubek said he would have closed the restaurant if the city told him the boil water notice was legitimate.
"They're just covering their butts," he said. "We suggested they should probably update their website because they've got the whole town scared."
Malio's Prime Steakhouse manager Dina Kuchkuda also said she was told by a city water employee the boil-water notice didn't apply to her restaurant. Malio's was buying extra bottled water for customers anyway.
"It's always better to err on the side of caution," Kuchkuda said.
Other restaurants heeded the notice without question, dispatching employees to snap up bottled water and ice. PF Chang's China Bistro and Maggiano's Little Italy in Westshore Plaza closed early Friday as a result of the notice, according to Bay News 9.
The Press Box sports bar general manager Jason Lougheran bumped into staff from Shells Seafood Restaurant, Grillsmith and Hooters as he ran to Walgreens and then Walmart for water and ice.
The notice affected scores of other businesses and establishments in different ways.
The University of Tampa told students, faculty and staff Friday afternoon by email and text message to not drink tap water. The school provided free bottles of water at its cafeteria.
The city's strip clubs were similarly affected. Mons Venus manager Lorry Kasner sent staff out for water, ice, and bottled soda. She was not particularly concerned about the impact on business.
Participants in the weekend's Gasparilla Distance Classic events won't go dry. Race director Susan Harmeling said 1,200 cases of Zephyrhills Spring Water are already loaded onto trucks.
Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten said the company noticed a "significant increase" in demand for water at Tampa-area stores Friday. Trucks were en route Friday evening with reinforcements.
At the Publix on Bayshore Boulevard, shelves of water were barren by 7 p.m. A few minutes later, an employee trotted out a case of Italian mineral water.
Dan Schlindwein, 26, came walking through just as the new water arrived. He picked up one of the last bottles. He eyed the 1-liter bottle warily at first, then read the label and decided it would do.
By the cash registers, an elderly woman and a cashier discussed the sudden, mad rush on water and what caused it.
"I heard," the cashier said, "it was a squirrel."
Times staff writer Patty Ryan contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or [email protected]