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Tampa water woes cost business more than city, council says

The electric pole standpipe at the David L. Tippin Water Treatment Facility that caused problems for Tampa residents has been replaced.
The electric pole standpipe at the David L. Tippin Water Treatment Facility that caused problems for Tampa residents has been replaced.
Published Mar. 1, 2013

TAMPA — Last week's temporary water system breakdown cost City Hall about $29,000 in overtime, materials and repair parts — less than city officials had feared.

But that only tells part of the story, critical City Council members countered Thursday.

They said the breakdown, which resulted in a 37-hour precautionary boil-water alert for 560,000 people, exacted much higher costs in losses to business and confusion to citizens.

"Very, very scary," Mary Mulhern said.

"Total disruption," Yvonne Yolie Capin said.

"Disgraceful," Lisa Montelione said.

"The cost to the city is way more than $29,000," Montelione said. "It's really embarrassing that we have restaurants who in this economy are struggling to stay alive, and then, through no fault of their own, take a blow to their business in this manner and not even know why or what they can do about it because we did not get the word out fast enough."

A lot of businesses have called the city about making a claim for reimbursement. City officials are asking for the claims in writing but have said little about anyone's prospects for getting paid.

Also unclear is whether City Hall is looking into trying to recover money from Tampa Electric Co., which is where city officials say the problems began.

The water treatment plant went off-line Feb. 22 after a cascading series of problems knocked out its power.

First a squirrel gnawed into and shorted out one of the plant's two electric supply lines.

Then city officials switched all of the plant over to the second line, but the extra current may have heated up an already-sagging line, causing it to expand and droop close enough to a line below for electricity to arc between the two and short out the second supply line.

At the same time, a surge of electricity from the arc knocked out the switch that normally would turn on the city's backup generators. Water pumps stopped until the city could switch the backup power to a second internal circuit. It took nearly 30 minutes to restore water pressure.

"This was a TECO electrical system failure," water department director Brad Baird said. "This was not a water system failure."

Council members were not reassured.

"We need to have an inspection system in place where we're not relying on TECO to be the ones who are going to do regular inspections (on) their facilities that supply our plant with power," Montelione said. "That sagging line — I'm sure it didn't sag overnight. Why isn't somebody at the city water department doing that?"

City officials say they did report the sagging line to Tampa Electric before last week's trouble, though they have been unable to find a record of it.

Tampa Electric spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said the utility has found just one incident of the city reporting a problem. It was on Feb. 4, she said, and it did not mention sagging power lines. But a utility crew did go out and replace a bad connector.

The company last inspected the area in question last year.

"All was well," Jacobs said, except for a wooden pole now scheduled to be replaced. And she stressed that the utility spends more than $100 million a year maintaining and upgrading its equipment.

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So far, Tampa Electric has received no claims, but it does investigate and process claims individually, Jacobs said.

Council members also said the city needs to do better notifying citizens and should make mass automated calls to residents instead of relying on the news media, emails to neighborhood leaders, posts to Facebook and Twitter, and Alert Tampa.

"The public wasn't called on the telephone, which is the one thing that most people have," Mulhern said. "Not everybody uses computers."

Baird said he would look into the use of mass-call technology. The council voted to have him back on April 4 to discuss that and other lessons learned.

"We were very lucky," council member Harry Cohen said. "No one, from what I understand, actually got sick. It is incumbent upon us to look back it and use it at a teaching tool."