Houston mayor defends boil water order that kept hundreds of thousands of kids home from school

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner warned people Monday not to compare the city’s current boil water order to last year’s “February freeze,” when the state’s power grid collapsed and 246 people died.

Although both were caused by power outages, the boil order when an outage Sunday at a water purification plant caused water pressure to drop, raising concerns about possible contamination, that’s where the similarities end. , said.

“The February freeze is a totally different matter,” Turner said during a news conference. “He was without power and water and things stayed down for several days, okay? For several days.”

Turner shared a timeline of the events leading up to the boil water notice and said state law requires the city to notify the public within 24 hours of the incident, a requirement he said the city had met. The order prompted officials to close public schools Monday and Tuesday, affecting more than 330,000 children.

According to Turner, two transformers failed, causing power outages at the East Water Purification Plant, which he says provides water to much of Houston’s 2.2 million residents. There were no indications that the water system had been contaminated, he said.

Water quality tests were underway, and Turner said he anticipated the safety advisory would be lifted sometime Tuesday morning. The Eastern Water Purification Plant is outside of the city, in Galena Park.

    Galena Park East Water Purification Plant
The entrance to the East Water Purification Plant in Galena Park, outside Houston, on Monday. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

As of Sunday morning, 16 sensors marked drops below the state-mandated minimum pressure levels of 20 pounds per square inch. Fourteen sensors marked dips for just 2 minutes and two for nearly 30 minutes, Turner said.

Power was restored to the plant at 12:30 p.m., he said. If contamination occurred when the pressure dropped, it may still be traveling through the system, which is why the boil advisory remained in effect despite satisfactory pressure, she said.

The city issued the boil water advisory out of “an abundance of caution” after the main transformer and its backup failed, Turner said. Even if the generators had been turned on, the problem would still have occurred, he said.

“Now, I’ve directed Public Works to do a general review of our system, a diagnostic review, to see how we prevent this from happening again,” Turner said.

The security alert disrupted the routines of millions of people in a sprawling city whose geographic footprint is about half the size of Rhode Island. Parents canceled work to stay home with children who had already had the previous week off for the Thanksgiving holiday. Cafe owners hung signs in their windows informing customers that they expected to reopen Tuesday.

Wanda Brown, a mother of two young children, headed to Kroger on Houston’s east side looking for bottled drinking water, but found empty shelves instead.

Brown, who had stopped working to be home with her children, loaded her cart with cases of sparkling water and Gatorade.

“At least we’ll have something to drink,” he said. “It’s frustrating, to say the least.”

Across town, Cathryn Wells snagged one of the last cases of bottled water at a Walmart Neighborhood Market, which she planned to give away to her older neighbors. After so many natural and man-made disasters in Houston over the years, including hurricanes and flooding, Wells, a Houston native, said neither she nor most of her neighbors were concerned about the boil alert. She still had bottled water stocked from the historic freeze and power outage that left Houston without safe drinking water for nearly a week in February 2021.

“It becomes quite difficult to live here,” Wells said.

Some residents were angry that it took several hours after the drop in water pressure before the city alerted residents of the potential danger. Turner said the city was working with state officials and local experts to evaluate the data before issuing an advisory that they knew would be damaging.

At the same news conference, Carol Haddock, director of Houston’s public works department, stressed that the risk of contamination from Sunday’s outage was much lower than previous incidents, including the 2021 freeze.

“We don’t have any indication yet that we’ve had any intrusions or anything break into the system,” Haddock said. “But we are following the process to make sure the water is safe for everyone.”

The notice was sent to the public at 6:44 pm, Turner said: “What I can tell people is that this was a situation that was not being glossed over, ignored.”

CORRECTION (Nov. 28, 2022, 5:32 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article got it wrong when Turner said the boil water order would be lifted. He said that he anticipated that he would get up Tuesday morning; he didn’t say he would be up by then.