Time ticking down until thousands in Florida run out of water
By BRITTANY WALLMAN AND WAYNE K. ROUSTAN | Sun Sentinel | Published: July 18, 2019
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — As faucets dwindle to a trickle, tens of thousands of residents in Fort Lauderdale and surrounding cities are bracing for the moment today when the city’s water supply runs out, the result of a private contractor hitting a water main during construction.
City officials said customers could be without water — and thus, without working toilets — for the next 24 to 36 hours. Some also will be without air conditioning. Water was still flowing from city reserves Thursday morning, but taps started running dry in the early afternoon.
Any water running from 11 a.m. on isn’t safe to drink without boiling, the city said.
City officials said they hope to have water restored by Thursday night at the earliest, but they warned that it could be as late as Friday night.
The city issued a boil-water order about noon Thursday, according to a robocall sent to residents. If you have water, boil it for one minute before using it for things such as brushing your teeth or washing dishes. That order will last at least 48 hours after water is fully restored, city officials said.
The outage affect Fort Lauderdale — hospitals, hotels, courthouses, the jail, high-rises, restaurants, employees and homeowners — as well as customers in other cities.
The largest provider of drinking water in the county, Fort Lauderdale serves residents and businesses in all or parts of Port Everglades, Oakland Park, Davie, Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, Sea Ranch Lakes, Tamarac and Wilton Manors.
Fort Lauderdale set up three water distribution centers: the Beach Community Center, 3351 NE 33rd Ave.; Mills Pond Park, 2201 NW Ninth Ave.; and Riverland Park, 950 SW 27th Ave.
The outage was the largest in recent history. Fort Lauderdale’s water and sewer system is aging and has suffered numerous pipe breaks in recent years, but it’s rare for an outage to cut off service citywide and beyond.
Most pipes that break are carrying water from the plant to customers, so the effects are limited. This 3½-foot diameter pipe carried raw water from the wellfields into the water plant, so the break cut off the water supply entirely.
The city declared a state of emergency, giving the mayor authority to make purchases or impose rules that might be necessary. Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke to Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis on Thursday morning and offered assistance. The state is sending two semi-trucks of water to help.
City officials said a private contractor doing work near Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport damaged the pipe. Deputy City Manager Rob Hernandez identified the company as Florida Communication Concepts, a subcontractor working with Florida Power & Light Co.
Exactly when the break occurred was unclear. Residents were notified before sunrise Thursday.
Dozens of nursing homes and senior centers and hospitals were preparing to be without water. In high-rises with water/air conditioning chillers on the roofs, residents could be without air conditioning.
The location of the water main break is in the 2500 block of Northwest 55th Court, just off the runways at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. The city has two treatment plants, but the one affected, Fiveash Regional Water Treatment Plant, supplies most of the city’s drinking water.
City spokesman Chaz Adams did not identify the private contractor but said it was not related to work at Lockhart Stadium next to FXE airport.
Taciana Faria, 27, Coral Springs, works at Airtrade Aviation, 2535 NW 55th Court, which is right next to the water main that she said ruptured about 2 p.m. Wednesday.
“I went outside and it smelled like poop,” she said.
“It was really bad,” she said. “There was dirty water. It was a really strong smell.”
Faria said the parking lot between several hangars was completely flooded.
“While water service is still operating, residents and businesses are urged to limit use. Please turn off all irrigation systems and only use water when absolutely necessary. Updates will be provided as more information becomes available,” the city announced.
At Port Everglades, spokeswoman Ellen Kennedy said cruise ships are the port’s biggest water users, but the proposed timing for repairs may ease the burden.
“Fortunately, we do not have any cruise ships until Saturday when this problem should be resolved,” she said.
The North Broward Hospital District, which administers four hospitals in the county, issued a statement Thursday indicating that so far services are continuing uninterrupted.
By noon, closures were piling up throughout Fort Lauderdale. The Galleria mall on Sunrise Boulevard didn’t open for business. The main courthouse, at 201 SE Third Ave., closed at noon. The L.A. Fitness and Whole Foods on Federal Highway south of Oakland Park Boulevard were closed.
“We are carefully monitoring this situation and will provide updates as more information becomes available,” the statement said.
The city of Fort Lauderdale is prepared to fight fires, fire-rescue Battalion Chief Stephen Gollan said. The city has tanker trucks full of water and has reached out to neighboring cities that have water, to assist if needed. Fire trucks also can tap into canals if they have to, Gollan said. A second water plant, Peele-Dixie, that serves a small portion of the city is still operating.
The fire department asked that high-rise buildings prepare to shut off automatic water pumps that kick on when water pressure drops. If the pumps kick on when there’s no water in the pipes, motors will burn out.
Bottled water was selling fast at grocery stores in the communities affected by the halting of service.
Reginaldo Pitanga, of Fort Lauderdale, was just leaving the YouFit Health Club, 959 E. Commercial Blvd., Oakland Park, when he read a sign that was posted inside the gym saying the city’s water supply had been affected by a water main break. So, he stopped at the neighboring Publix to pick up a case of bottled water.
“I usually don’t buy bottled water and try to use tap water with a filter and everything but when we have to we buy bottled water in an emergency, like now,” he said.
Restaurants were trying to stay open but preparing to close should their water run out.
And in downtown Fort Lauderdale at least one major office building, the Bank of America Financial Center, 401 E. Las Olas Blvd., sent a notice to employees that the building would be closed today.
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport still has water and is not affected. The airport gets its water supply from the city of Hollywood.
Zenaida Wagner drove from Tamarac to the Publix at 1003 E. Commercial Blvd. to fill her cart with bottled water.
“The City of Tamarac called me this morning to tell me about a water main break,” she said. “I got dressed and came here before the crowds took all the water.”
She has an 8-year-old Border Collie dog named Peanut that she wants to keep hydrated.
“I have a dog that drinks water like a horse,” she said. “I walk her twice a day and it’s hot like the dickens out there.”
Staff writers Ben Crandell, Kathy Laskowski, Cindy Krischer Goodman, David Lyons, Anthony Man, Rafael Olmeda and Linda Trischitta contributed to this report.
Coral Ridge Mall in Fort Lauderdale has closed its restrooms due to a county wide water outage after a private contractor hit a water main during construction.
LINDA TRISCHITTA/SUN SENTINEL/TNS