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Dade City seeks answers for cause and missteps in water 'crisis'

DADE CITY — It's a mystery: First an unexplained malfunction left the entire city without water. Then came the angry e-mails and phone calls from residents who said they didn't get word about a boil notice over the weekend.

Dade City officials have spent this week trying to pinpoint what caused the utilities system to shut down for about an hour early Friday. They also are trying to figure out how to keep it from happening again, and if it ever does, how to make sure everyone gets the word to take precautions.

"This was a crisis," said City Commissioner Camille Hernandez, who returned from a trip to find e-mails from residents who had been unaware of a boil notice and worried the water might have made them or their families sick. "I felt embarrassed to be a commissioner. … Shame on us."

It turned out they had no reason to worry, as tests showed no contamination.

City Manager Billy Poe said officials did everything they could. He said this is the first time a water problem has ever reached citywide proportions.

Poe said some time last Thursday night, three of the city's six active wells stopped pumping. The water tanks, which store emergency supplies, then kicked in. An alarm that is supposed to alert authorities when water in the tanks reach low levels failed to go off.

The result was extremely low water pressure to the city's 5,200 customers. Officials then called a firm they contracted with to service the system. About an hour later, service was back to normal. But because water levels had dipped so low, officials asked residents to boil their water for at least one minute before drinking or cooking with it, as a precaution to kill any bacteria.

The problem was how to get the word out to so many people.

They called two television stations. They posted notices on the city's website. They used an electronic city notification system as well as the county's reverse 911 system to call customers.

Still, some didn't get the message in time. City officials said that with such a widespread problem, it wasn't practical to knock on every door in town.

"When we have neighborhood outages, we also go to door to door, but that's 25; that's not close to 5,200," Poe said.

Hernandez said some residents complained that when they called the city to report low water pressure, they got the same after-hours recording. She said officials could have updated the message to alert people of the boil notice.

"It's a time to learn and critique what we did," Poe said.

No system is foolproof, he noted: Some people only have cell phones, which may not appear in reverse 911 directories or may not be turned on when automated calls go out.

City officials are investigating why the alarm failed to work. An inspection showed "the auto-dial was disconnected and the wires were clipped," Poe said.

Poe said the alarm is located inside a locked well house. There were no signs of forced entry. "We had crews go out and they were unable to repair it," said Poe, who said officials are getting replacement estimates.

He also has no idea why the wells failed to pump, but when repair crews arrived, all they had to do was hit the reset button and they started working.

Poe said the city had an employee who serviced the system but he resigned a few days before the system failure. The city is contracting with a firm for now but is searching for someone to fill the vacancy.

.in other business

Commissioners vote to raise garbage rate

Dade City Commissioners voted 3-2 on Tuesday to increase garbage rates by 5 percent. Central Carting and Disposal asked for the rate hike because of inflation and higher fuel costs. City officials agreed to the absorb part of the rate increase but passed the 5 percent fuel surcharge onto customers. Poe said the hike amounts to roughly 40 cents per month for residential customers.

Dade City seeks answers for cause and missteps in water 'crisis' 05/11/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 8:48pm]
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