WELLFLEET — The discovery of E. coli bacteria in the town’s public water supply led to a “boil water order” from the state on Saturday evening, Sept. 26. Occupants of the 290 homes and businesses served by the system were warned to boil their tap water for at least one minute before drinking it, washing dishes, or brushing teeth with it. Restaurants were required to boil water for five minutes.
The bacteria, which can cause diarrhea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, and headaches, were found in water samples taken on Sept. 24 and 25 by WhiteWater Inc. of Charlton, which manages Wellfleet’s municipal water system. The company said the problem should be corrected within three to seven days.
That message was simple enough, but getting the information out to residents, property owners, and businesses proved to be challenging.
“It was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination,” said Police Chief Michael Hurley of the warning system. Hurley sent out alerts developed by CivicPlus, a technology company in Manhattan, Kan., which also created the town’s website.
Leaks in Alert System
There were some big leaks in those alerts. First, you need to have signed up on the town website to receive them either by phone, by text message, or by email (or all three). Then, you need to have kept your contact information updated. People who had changed email addresses or phone numbers missed the boil water order issued on Saturday night.
Also, those who signed up to get alerts by phone received an automated call saying there was important information “attached,” which obviously made no sense when referring to a phone call. Hurley said the software was supposed to translate the written notification into spoken words, but this particular message was too long.
So, on Sunday, Sept. 27, CivicPlus advised officials to create a shorter explanation. That’s why everyone on the alert system received a marginally more coherent phone message on Sunday.
Rebekah Eldridge, the water dept. clerk, said the message on Saturday was cryptic, and the one on Sunday was an improvement, but it still left some people more confused and suspicious of a hoax.
The police dept. on Sunday got angry calls from residents who either didn’t get the information directly from the town or who found they had to click through several online links to get details. The process was clunky and confusing, Hurley said.
“People were getting frustrated and lashed out, and it was a very stressful two days,” Hurley said.
The main issue, Hurley said, is that the entire town staff was unprepared and untrained in the use of the emergency alert system.
“The town got it from CivicPlus a few years ago, and to be quite honest, the time, the effort, and the training was never put in,” Hurley said. “We were supposed to be set up and ready to go, but we seem to manage by crisis.”
290 Phone Calls
Eldridge and Jim Hood, chair of the board of water commissioners, went to work on Sunday with the goal of personally calling all 290 property owners with hookups to the system to let them know of the danger. It took 12 hours, Eldridge said. And yet that effort still missed properties that have changed hands, or whose owners’ contact information had changed.
Scott Castro, who in August purchased a condominium on Commercial Street, found out about the boil water order when the Independent, aware that he was new in town, called him on Monday, Sept. 28. He said he would have to talk to his 12-year-old daughter, since she often drinks from the tap.
“I’m a little surprised at this,” he added, “It’s not like this is Flint, Mich. It sounds like a big town problem, not a little town problem.”
Christopher Ostrom, who manages the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater house near the transfer station, told the Independent that he heard about the order from one of his tenants, who works at the Bookstore restaurant. Ostrom said he was not contacted by anyone from the town.
At least one restaurant owner also missed the notification. Trudy Vermehren, owner of the Fox and Crow Café on Commercial Street, found out about the problem when a concerned customer called the restaurant at 9 a.m. Sunday. Although the business was closed that day, Vermehren was there for a meeting and had already made and drank coffee using town water. She received the notification from the town at 11:30 that morning.
“I hope the notification system is in some way improved upon,” Vermehren said Tuesday.
Currently the restaurant is open only on Friday nights, but food is prepared there on weekday mornings for the Common Table, a free food delivery program.
The staff adapted, boiling water ahead of time, said Vermehren.
“There’s a lot of different levels of things that can be easily overlooked in a restaurant if you’re not super careful,” she said. “It just took a day to figure out, because we usually come in and make things that morning. We just had to get ahead of it. We’re fine now.”
Eric Smith, a WhiteWater project executive, would not say why the public water supply contained E. coli, which is an indicator that the water may be contaminated by human or animal waste. The bacteria are especially dangerous to infants, the elderly, and those with severely compromised immune systems.
“We’re following all of the Mass. D.E.P. guidelines regarding the system,” Smith said.
Stormwater runoff can contaminate public water, but there has not been much rain. It can also be caused by a failure in the water treatment system, according to the email sent via the alert system. Eldridge said they suspect it is a leak in a pipe somewhere, though she, too, was unsure.
The system is being totally flushed and cleaned with a chlorine solution; then it will be retested, Eldridge said.
In the meantime, Eldridge is trying to put to good use the 12 hours she spent finding the water system’s customers. She is creating an updated list and wants to be able to send out a massive group email should something like this happen again.
To sign up for emergency alerts, go to: wellfleet-ma.regroup.com.