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Here's how Wichita public officials handled the water shutdown

Wichita eagle logo Wichita eagle 10/14/2021 Matthew Kelly and Riley Gutiérrez McDermid, The Wichita Eagle

Oct. 13—READ MORE — Wichita boil water advisory

A major Wichita water main break on Oct. 7, 2021, led the Kansas Department of Heath and Environment to place the city and others that purchase water from its system under a boil water advisory.

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Confusion reigned last Thursday evening as a major water main break that left roughly half a million Kansans without reliable drinking water for 36 hours spurred uncertainty.

As city crews worked nonstop to address the burst pipe, the failure to communicate vital information between organizations and to the general public compounded the confusion of the moment.

Officials knew early on that Wichita water couldn't be deemed safe before Saturday morning, but that timeline wasn't made clear for hours, keeping families and businesses guessing late into the night about what Friday may bring.

Wichita mother Aly McKinney, who has two children in Wichita schools and works full time, said she was frustrated that the district waited to cancel Friday classes until around 9:30 p.m.

"I was just kind of surprised that they took so long to make a decision," McKinney said.

District officials say the decision came late because they were assessing whether they had enough bottled water on-hand to provide for 47,000 students and 10,000 employees.

"Even if they didn't know for sure if there was going to be clean, safe water at all the schools, I feel like it would be safer for them to just shut it down," McKinney said.

Fortunately, her husband's flexible work schedule allowed him to stay home most of the day with their two daughters.

"For a lot of other parents, it's kind of prohibitive," McKinney said. "They would have to figure out child care or call into work."

County communications tool wasn't ready

As residents rushed to stock up on bottled water, Mayor Brandon Whipple called for civility and asked people not to hoard resources. Shoppers, including those who hadn't heard anything about the boil advisory, loaded their carts with water anyways.

But Sedgwick County officials say some of that confusion could have been mitigated if the county's Emergency Management tools had been engaged.

"The county does have a civics ready system that when they have the information, they can put out the alert to all county employees," Sedgwick County Health Department Director Adrienne Byrne said Friday.

"There was miscommunication and that didn't happen."

Sedgwick County officials voiced frustration Tuesday that they weren't notified by the city when the water main broke, leaving them unable to help manage the emergency.

"We were behind the curve in receiving information. We did not like that," said Julie Stimson, the county's director of emergency management and the region's top official for dealing with crises.

"Our first phone call was from a hospital and then we started reaching out to ask questions [of the city] and it wasn't until the next morning when we finally got somebody on the phone to answer our specific questions."

Stimson said the city and county should have been working closer together to help disseminate critical public health information.

She said Sedgwick County residents should be able to sign up for phone alerts through the county's civics ready system by next year.

"Something like this, if it had been available to us, would have been very valuable," said Wichita Public Works and Utilities Director Alan King.

"Not everyone gets their news the way that we think they do, which is through social media and news and radio and print. Maybe we need to have another layer for those people who don't use that way of getting their news."

City response lagged

Most Wichitans had no idea that the state department of health could not rescind the boil advisory until a lab determined that Wichita's water was safe to drink — a process officials knew would take at least 24 hours.

"As soon as the boil advisory hit, we knew that it was going to at least be 24 hours until it was possible for it to be rescinded because that's how long the test takes," King said.

King said the city didn't communicate that to the public for fear that it would be interpreted as a guarantee of safe water by Saturday.

"It wasn't as though we wanted to withhold information," he said. "We didn't want to tell people we would have an answer about whether it was going to be lifted on Saturday because quite frankly, we didn't know if it would be lifted on Saturday."

City Manager Robert Layton was the first to say in a phone interview around 7:30 p.m. Thursday that Wichitans would go to sleep that night without any answers about drinking water safety.

State-level response

Gov. Laura Kelly never publicly addressed the Wichita water crisis. The governor's office did not respond to The Eagle's repeated requests for comment.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment issued a boil water advisory for Wichita and several surrounding municipalities at 4:47 p.m Thursday. Early Saturday morning, the city of Wichita tweeted a KDHE press release rescinding the boil advisory for Wichita.

At no point did KDHE share any public information about the possible consequences of drinking contaminated water.

Spokesperson Matt Lara did not return three voicemails Thursday. When Lara returned a call Friday afternoon, he told The Eagle what people could expect if water was, in fact, contaminated.

"We don't know yet if there are any contaminants in the water, but if there are, they could have gastrointestinal issues, which could be anything from an upset stomach or they could be vomiting or have diarrhea," Lara said.

The Kansas Department of Transportation has yet to conduct a thorough investigation of critical infrastructure under I-135 near the site of the major water main break.

KDOT's Wichita spokesperson said this week that he doesn't believe there's any damage under the highway, but ongoing storms have made it difficult to inspect the area.

KDOT has closed the two right-hand lanes and shoulder of the highway near the site of the break, as well as the entrance ramp from 13th Street onto northbound I-135. Spokesperson Tom Hein said the closure is to provide "a buffer zone for workers with large equipment" — not because the transportation department is worried about damage under the highway.

Bright spots

One elected official who rose to the occasion during the water emergency was City Council member Jared Cerullo. The District 3 representative took to social media to update followers periodically Thursday night as information about the water main break and subsequent boil advisory became known.

"FYI . . . There has been a major water main break within the city. Still gathering information, but not sure exactly where it is yet. However, there has been a city-wide loss of pressure," Cerullo posted to Facebook Thursday afternoon.

Cerullo posted nine times in total between Thursday night and Friday morning, providing detailed updates on a range of issues, from news that the gushing leak had been found to information about how to safely boil water for consumption.

Other City Council members either remained silent on social media or shared posts from Wichita's official accounts.

It was King who stood at the podium Thursday afternoon and Friday morning to tell Wichitans that city crews were working diligently to restore safe water.

King, who told The Eagle in 2019 that fear of a water treatment plant failure kept him up at night, didn't have all the answers when he spoke at the city's news conferences.

King told The Eagle that in hindsight, he realizes it was a mistake not to inform the public as soon as he knew Wichita wouldn't have answers about water safety Thursday night.

But as The Eagle reported, the city of Wichita's water system has been flirting with disaster for years.

The Eagle reported in 2019 that an engineering study found 100% of the city's raw water pipes were in "very poor" condition as of 2017, and the city's entire water infrastructure was at a "significant risk" of failure.

"I've got a theory, and it's only a theory, that [the broken main] could have been a result of corrosion," King said Friday. "This is a concrete pipe with what they call a steel cage ... it's reinforced concrete pipe. When we pulled the piece out of the ditch, that cage looked corroded."

King said the city will conduct an investigation into the soil surrounding the break to find out if corrosion contributed to the weakness in the distribution system.

The Public Works and Utilities director has been raising concerns about the state of Wichita's critical water infrastructure for years. He feared it was only a matter of time before something like this happened. And then it happened.

This story was originally published October 13, 2021 3:05 PM.

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