The water is probably safe to drink. Probably.
But nearly a quarter of a million Erie County residents won’t know for sure until Saturday – three days after a major water main ruptured in Amherst.
Until then, the Erie County Health Department advises people to boil any water they use for drinking, brushing their teeth and even washing their dishes or risk being exposed to nasty microbes that can cause an array of unpleasant digestive woes and pose serious risks to people with compromised immune systems. Use bottled water instead.
In the meantime, Erie County officials as well as some Northtowns residents raised concerns about the apparent lack of communication from the Erie County Water Authority about the potential danger of their tap water.
Here’s what was known Thursday:
• A 36-inch water line operated by the water authority broke near Millersport Highway, north of the Youngmann Highway, at about 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. Some people lost all service and many more experienced low water pressure. Water service was restored by about 11:30 p.m.
• When water mains lose pressure it increases the chance that untreated water and harmful microbes can get into the water, officials with Erie County and the Erie County Health Department said in a statement. The microbes can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, and other symptoms and may pose more serious health risks for infants, some elderly and people with severely compromised immune systems.
• Amherst, Clarence, Cheektowaga, Depew, Lancaster, Newstead and Williamsville were put under the “boil water notice.” Also affected were western Genesee County communities of Pembroke, Darien and Corfu.
• The boil water notice is “just precautionary” but two rounds of testing need to be completed to be able to say for sure, Erie County Health Commissioner Gail R. Burstein said.
• Tests need to be 24 hours apart and the samples need to “incubate” for 18 hours to determine whether there is anything hazardous lurking in the water. That means the earliest the boil notice can be lifted is Saturday.
• Wegmans and Tops in the Northtowns were packed overnight Wednesday and all through Thursday with customers stocking up on cases of bottled water.
• Restaurants and other food service providers were advised to boil water, use bottled water – or shut down. But some relied on using their water filters.
• All elective surgeries were cancelled for Thursday at the St. Joseph Campus of Sisters of Charity Hospital per the request of county health officials and all elective surgeries scheduled for Friday were moved to Sisters Hospital Main Street Campus. Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital was fully operational but also under the boil water notice.
• Work crews were able to bypass the broken line to restore service, but were still repairing the water line Thursday night and didn’t know when it would be completely fixed.
At the Wegmans supermarket on Maple Road in Amherst, customers flocked to the bottled water aisle as supermarket workers tried to keep the shelves stocked.
Sarah Walsh of Amherst was loading up her cart Thursday morning at the Tops Markets at Maple Road and North Bailey Avenue. Not only did Walsh buy three jugs of water, she picked up ice, disposable plates and utensils, as well as prepackaged meals. Having three children and no running water for possibly several days meant taking action.
“I’m a nurse, so ‘Be Prepared’ is my motto,” she said.
Mark Costanza said the fear of anyone else getting sick in his home was enough of a reason to head straight to Wegman’s off Maple Road at 9:30 in the morning. Currently, he has an ailing son, brother and father to look after.
“I have a legitimate reason to be here, or else you wouldn’t see me here,” he said chuckling.
Costanza carted off three packs of 35 water bottles and some fruit.
“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, Thursday morning. “We’re doing our best to keep our shelves stocked.”
Restaurants and other places that serve food were also being told they should boil water for drinking, food preparation and washing dishes.
At the Red Lobster restaurant on Maple Road and Bailey Avenue, restaurant workers unloaded 30 cases of bottled water from an SUV. The water will be served to customers, and dishes will be washed with boiling water.
Aro Bar de Tapas on Sheridan Drive in Amherst tweeted that it would be closed Thursday night because of the water situation but would reopen Friday.
But it was business as usual at several Amherst area eateries including a Tim Hortons on Maple Road, a Cornerstone Bakery and Moe’s. Representatives of these businesses said their water is filtered, so they weren’t worried about potential illnesses. They also pointed out that their dish-washing sanitation systems reach a temperature of at least 180 degrees which they felt was adequate.
Erie County officials said that the county can’t force businesses to follow the boil water notice.
“That is a decision that has to be made by each individual restaurant. All we can do is provide those guidelines/suggestions,” a county spokesman said.
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and Health Commissioner Gail R. Burstein tried to answer questions and clear up confusion Thursday during a morning news conference.
The boil-water notice isn’t any different than others that happen routinely when there’s a water main break, except that this one affects many more people, the county executive said.
“This boiled water notice is just precautionary,” Burstein said. “There is no evidence that the harmful bacteria are in our water system.”
She explained that two rounds of “negative” testing were required in order to lift the boil notice. “And each round of testing must be conducted 24 hours apart so residents and business owners should expect that the boil-water notice should be in effect for two to three days.”
That would take residents into Saturday, Poloncarz said.
Poloncarz also distanced county government from the water authority, which is a separate entity and would take the lead on getting information out to the public. The county executive was critical of the job the water authority did notifying residents about the situation.
“We were going to get as much information out to the public as soon as could and we did, but we were just like everyone else,” Poloncarz said. “We were trying to scramble to get information from the Water Authority. I think they could have done a better job.”
The county has been busy fielding calls about the water issues, but for more information residents can check out erie.gov/health or call 961-6800, they said.
“But you should expect delays,” Burstein said. “We’re very busy.”
‘Didn’t hear anything about it’
Many northern Erie County residents didn’t realize there was a problem until well after they had brushed their teeth with the potentially contaminated water.
“I had no idea. I found out like five minutes ago,” said Jamie Roetzer, an Erie Community College student and Wegmans employee, late Thursday morning. “Had I not come into work, I would’ve never known.”
Residents wondered why they hadn’t received an official notice or why they hadn’t seen more about it on social media.
“The only indicator we got was the lack of water coming from the faucet,” said an Amherst woman, who declined to provide her name.
Buffalo milLennials said they expected more information during the age of social media.
“I would’ve expected it to blow up on social media, but I didn’t hear anything about it,” said Melissa Vintei of Lancaster.
The water main break caused some minor inconveniences and more serious concerns for Amherst residents.
Jim Zymanek, the town’s director of emergency services, said patients at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital were a big concern. East Amherst firefighters took 20 cases of bottled water to the hospital, Zymanek said.
“Obviously in a high-rise water’s not going to go to the upper floors,” he said.
Amherst and Williamsville officials also went to municipal buildings and parks and placed signs on water fountains warning of the boil-water notice. Another major concern was water availability and pressure for fire hydrants in the town, Zymanek said.
News Staff Reporters Joseph Popiolkowski and Jay Rey contributed to this report.
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