Sunday, May 2, 2010

Not a Drop to Drink -- We Mean It

About two million people in the greater Boston area are under a boil water order for the second night tonight, after a massive water main break in Weston, about 15 miles west of the city.  The vast majority of communities in the Boston area are part of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), which provides water and/or sewer service through a centralized system.  All communities in the MWRA east of I-95/Route 128 were affected by yesterday's break.  The backup reservoirs that are being used while the break is fixed are not as large as the one that usually feeds the system, and are largely untreated, so in addition to the water being unsafe to drink, people are also being asked to minimize their water usage.

In the history of catastrophes, certainly there are many more catastrophic than this one.  It is unlikely anyone will die from this water emergency, at least if they follow the boil order.  At the same time, this kind of story grabs our attention, or at least it grabs my attention.  As a native of the Boston area, I feel a particular connection to this situation.  In a more general way, however, this is also impressive because of the sheer number of people affected.  It  draws our attention to how much we take for granted the phenomenon of turning on the faucet and getting drinkable water. It also serves as something of a dry run for a truly life-threatening emergency.  We all figure we'd manage if something failed at our house -- we could always go to the neighbors or a hotel or the next town over.  Something like this makes you realize what happens when everyone is affected at the same time.

Because this isn't a life-threatening disaster, it's easy to think that people shouldn't be too upset.  That might sound logical, but the human mind isn't all that logical.  There are all sorts of signals -- from the tone of the news reports to the disruption of normal routines -- that something big has happened, and it's understandable that a lot of people find themselves feeling hyped up for what seems like no good reason.  Some people will even find themselves disappointed that this wasn't scarier or bigger or more important.  That's understandable, too, because they're actually wishing that events would justify their gut reactions.

There is something about a situation like this one that brings people together.  This is the sort of thing where people will say, "Do you remember the great water crisis of 2010?" and people will swap their stories.  In that sense, there is something of the feeling of adventure to this type of incident.  It is just serious enough to make us really pay attention, but not so serious that it will be too scary to reminisce about it.

The last such that fits this description for me was the Northeast Blackout of 2003.  A massive succession of failures in the power grid on August 14, 2003 blacked out much of the mid-Atlantic and southern New England, as far west as Lansing, Michigan.  I bring this up because not only is it the same kind of event, but, for my family, it had a similar effect.  We live in a township without access to municipal water, so our water comes from a well in our backyard via a pump -- an electric pump.  With no electricity, we had only the water in our pressure tank, and no idea how long we would have to make it last.

I have great stories about those couple of days.  There are some about neighbors helping neighbors.  Some about the crazy things that people did to get what they needed.  Some that would embarrass my child if I told them publicly.  That's how this sort of thing goes.  When this is over, the people of Eastern Massachusetts will have good stories, too.  In the meantime, they've got a major nuisance to deal with, and possibly a gut reaction to it that seems embarrassingly strong.  They might be surprised to know how many of their neighbors have that reaction, too.


Colleen said...

Don't you mean "inside 128", rather than west? Towns west of Lexington, mostly, don't have MWRA water. Concord, for instance, doesn't, although I think that Bedford does.

There was a loooooong line in Lexington today, where people were picking up several gallons of bottled water. I rode by the depot on my bike, thinking that it'd be faster to boil 10 gallons for a minute than wait in that line!

Naomi Zikmund-Fisher said...

I've fixed the east/west problem -- my apologies. I only lived in Massachusetts for 21 years. You can't expect me to have learned my way around. Well, ok, yes you can.

I'm Just Musing said...

Do you really feel this was a "crisis" or a "catastrophe"? What has happened to this country when something like this causes panic and people fighting in supermarkets to get bottled water. You could drink the water if you boiled it first, that isn't so hard to do. The power going out, I can see that being a problem, although even with that, you would be surprised how well people can function without it, it's just that we would rather complain than try to make do without.

Naomi Zikmund-Fisher said...

@Musing, one of the principles of crisis response is that a crisis is in people's reactions to an event, not in the event itself. For some people, this was a crisis. For some, it was just a big pain. From the point of view of the MWRA, it was a catastrophe in terms of the amount of damage to the system that it caused -- this is about as bad as it gets for them. You are right that most people can function if they just take a deep breath and think things through. You are also right that many people don't do that, and for them this was a crisis.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
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