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250,000 Erie County residents affected by boil-water advisory

A quarter million people in northern Erie County have been told they will need to boil their water or use bottled water for the next two to three days following a major water break Wednesday night.

Thousands lost all water service and many more had low water pressure. By Thursday morning, water was running again, but they were told it’s not yet known if the water is safe to drink.

So far, there has been no indication that there’s anything harmful but it takes 18 hours for test results to come back.

Here’s what we know about the water main break:

• Who’s affected: 250,000 people are affected in Amherst, Clarence, Depew, Lancaster, Newstead and Williamsville

• Boiling water advisory: Residents in the affected communities should boil water or use bottled water for drinking, making ice, brushing teeth and preparing food, according to an Erie County Water Authority statement.

• Is the water safe? Water tests are being conducted Thursday morning, but the results of which likely won’t be known for at least 18 hours. So far, there is no indication of anything harmful in the water.

Are restaurants affected? Establishments that serve must also use boiled water, bottled water or close.

• How long will it take? It may be two or three days before water safety is confirmed.

• Hospitals: All elective surgeries have been cancelled for Thursday at the St. Joseph Campus of Sisters of Charity Hospital per the request of county health officials. Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital is fully operational.

Tonawanda and Cheektowaga outside of the Village of Depew are not affected.

Communication problems: The Erie County Water Authority website was down as of about 10 a.m. and phone calls were not being answered.

• The water authority says it may update how customers are notified of problems

Boil-water checklist: The state Health Department has a checklist for residents and homeowners on what to do in the case of boil-water advisories.

The water authority’s boil water advisory states: “It is likely that you will need to boil water for the next 2-3 days until safety of the water is confirmed.”

County Executive Mark Poloncarz tweeted Thursday morning that water in the Town of Cheektowaga outside of Depew is safe to drink, citing the county Department of Health.

Town of Tonawanda residents are not affected because the town has its own water treatment plant.

County health officials recommend water in all areas affected by the break be boiled for one minute before it’s consumed.

The results of the water tests won’t be known for at least 18 hours.

“Due to the nature of the ECDOH tests, it takes at least 18 hours for the test’s cultures to incubate” before results are known, Poloncarz tweeted Thursday morning.

Some complained Thursday morning that they hadn’t been informed about the boil-water advisory.

“I would’ve expected it to blow up on social media, but I didn’t hear anything about it,” said Melissa Vintei, a Lancaster resident who was shopping in Wegmans on Alberta Drive in Amherst.

“Had I not come into work, I would’ve never known,” said Jamie Roetzer, an Erie Community College student.

The hospital set up an emergency command center Wednesday night shortly after the water line rupture. “The hospital has a series of protocols in place in the event of a drop or loss of water pressure, which include distributing bottled water, ice, waterless hand sanitizer, and other personal hygiene products to patients, visitors and staff,” the hospital said.

Erie County Water Authority Deputy Director Robert Lichtenthal said Thursday morning that repair crews are being mobilized, along with crews to conduct testing.

The testing is done by the authority in conjunction with the health department in a manner approved by health officials, Lichtenthal said.

Officials from both agencies will then review the results. “We thank customers for their patience,” he said.

Bottled water is flying off the shelves at Wegmans’ six stores within the affected area, according to a spokeswoman.

“All of our stores have been extremely busy with customers buying water literally since last night and through the night,” said Michele Mehaffy, Buffalo consumer affairs manager for Wegmans supermarkets. “We’re doing our best to keep our shelves stocked.”

Residents in a wide area of the Northtowns and eastern suburbs lost water pressure or service entirely Wednesday evening when a 36-inch water line ruptured near Millersport Highway, north of the Youngmann Highway, the authority reported.

At 11:17 p.m. Wednesday, the authority tweeted that the leak was located and that water pressure was “expected to recover shortly.”

Reports of no water or low water pressure started coming in about 9 p.m. from Amherst, Williamsville and northern Cheektowaga.

A little more than an hour later, Amherst Police reported that the leak was located on a right-of-way near the Youngmann.

Other communities affected by low water pressure included Snyder, Clarence, Depew and Lancaster.

“The loss of a line this big brings down your pressures,” Jerome Schad, a commissioner with the water authority, said Wednesday night.

Schad said there was no indication what caused the massive water line to break.

He wouldn’t speculate whether the ongoing drought could have played a role. Nearly all of Erie and Niagara counties remain under “severe drought” conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Schad said crews wouldn’t be able to pinpoint the cause until they excavated the line. They were still working to do that as midnight approached.

“These things can happen, and they do happen,” Schad said. “It could be a lot of things.”

Schad said the water line is among the largest in the system and connects to a large water tank near the University at Buffalo’s North Campus.

The largest water main in the county – near Sturgeon Point – is 54 inches, he said.

Schad didn’t have exact figures of the number of customers affected by the break late Wednesday, but he said that the geographical areas that were affected were consistent with a large rupture in the line connecting to the water service tank in that section of the county.

After crews repair the broken line, Schad said, water pressures are expected to gradually return to normal. That process was expected to take several hours.

When the break first happened, residents took to social media to complain of a lack of water or water pressure and an inability to contact the water authority.

The water authority’s website and telephone system were down for a period of time, possibly from being overrun by customers seeking information.

When the website came back online, there was an “Emergency Notification System” announcement stating: “ECWA has a leak that is in a widespread area. We are working on the problem and have service back in a few hours. Thank You.”

News Staff Reporter Anne Neville contributed to this report. email: tpignataro@buffnews.com, abesecker@buffnews.com and chsieh@buffnews.com

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