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Atlanta marks Day 5 of a water crisis that took city officials by surprise


A large area of Atlanta remains under a boil water advisory this morning, marking Day 5 of a water crisis that's taken city officials by surprise. As they ask residents for continued patience, one thing is clear - Atlanta's infrastructure issues are the canary in the coal mine for a nation of aging infrastructure. From member station WABE in Atlanta. Jim Burress has this report.

JIM BURRESS, BYLINE: Friday afternoon, water started to erupt from an intersection near Atlanta's Morehouse and Spelman colleges.


BURRESS: After eight decades buried underground, the 4-foot-by-3-foot metal pipe had corroded to the point of failure. The system's pressure dropped, prompting officials to warn nearly half of the city not to drink the tap water. And then it got worse. Like a cascading effect, a second major line broke a few miles north in the city's busy Midtown neighborhood. Smaller connections crumbled across the system. Officials extended the boil water advisory to just about the entire city, leaving restaurants and retailers little choice but to close.

DEVIN BARRINGTON-WARD: It was a lot of different businesses, right? I mean, even State Farm Arena was impacted.

BURRESS: Devin Barrington-Ward was going to the arena to see a sold-out Megan Thee Stallion concert.

BARRINGTON-WARD: All of the vendors who were relying on that show so that they could sell, all of the people who work at the arena who were sent home - those are hourly workers.

BURRESS: Most city and county operations came to a halt. The 911 call center brought in portable toilets and hand-washing stations. A few blocks over at Grady Memorial Hospital, tractor trailers full of water crowded the curb. The hospital canceled all elective procedures. Gwendolyn Smith lives in a senior home in Midtown and was waiting at a nearby fire station for bottled water.

GWENDOLYN SMITH: Woke up this morning, and the water was down real low.

BURRESS: Smith says she's worried about using tap water, even to bathe.

SMITH: I'm not going to get in that water now. I showered yesterday. Today I wiped down with some wipes.

BURRESS: Six fire stations across the city served as water distribution sites for those who needed it. And even as some 15 city departments worked around the clock all weekend, a fix seemed elusive. The mayor declared the city in a state of emergency. By Monday afternoon, a key component was finally en route, giving Watershed Management Commissioner Al Wiggins the first glimpse of optimism he'd had all weekend.


AL WIGGINS: We're hopeful that this part will be installed before nightfall. And we'll begin to pressurize the system.

BURRESS: It worked. Monday evening, the city was able to lift one of the two boil water advisories. Speaking to the City Council Monday night, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said he secured the help of the Army Corps of Engineers.


ANDRE DICKENS: They are the government entity that most - have the most actual experience in these type of crisis that we are in with crumbling and aging infrastructure.

BURRESS: Dickens says the corps will help identify weak spots in the water lines. Like many cities, Atlanta's pipes date back a century or more, well beyond their useful life spans.

For NPR News, I'm Jim Burress in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jim Burress
[Copyright 2024 NPR]