Residents, businesses race to adapt; water vanishes from stores

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / May 2, 2010

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Boston police cruised streets, using bullhorns to warn people to boil water before drinking. In many other communities, residents received automated phone calls and fliers with similar instructions.

Supermarkets saw a run on bottled water, with shelves being emptied in hours.

Nearly 2 million people in communities east of Weston yesterday were abruptly forced to change the way they’ve gone about performing routine tasks: turning on the faucet for a drink of water, brushing their teeth, even setting out water for pets.

A catastrophic break in a pipe bringing water from Weston to dozens of cities and towns to the east meant residents must contend with untreated water from backup reservoirs for at least several days, perhaps a week, said Ria Convery, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

Doctors were ordered to use bottled water to scrub up before surgery. Restaurants stopped serving tap water and ice.

All water to be ingested, including water used for cooking and making baby formula, should be boiled for at least a minute to kill potentially harmful bacteria such as E.coli and giardia, Convery said.

Emergency water reaching many taps was being channeled from open-air reservoirs such as Chestnut Hill and Spot Pond in Stoneham, watering holes possibly contaminated by goose and deer droppings.

At Stop & Shop in Lexington, customers filled the store, headed for Aisle 11, and emptied a 40-foot stretch of shelves of bottled water. Floor supervisor Eddie Domings sent as many co-workers as he could to the stockroom to fetch every available container of water.

“We’re out back looking for as much water as we have,’’ said Domings, scanning the lengthening lines of carts bulging with 5-gallon jugs, gallon containers, and packs of plastic water bottles.

For Kalpana Dulipsingh, the boil-water order couldn’t have come at a worse time. The member of Church of Our Redeemer in Lexington was helping to plan a lemonade benefit along the Minuteman Bikeway today to raise money for the Lexington Food Pantry.

“Maybe we’ll put up a sign saying, ‘Made with bottled water,’ ’’ said Dulipsingh.

An Auburndale Star Market ran out of water and requested an emergency shipment. In Coolidge Corner in Brookline, long lines formed at Trader Joe’s, CVS, and Walgreens for any kind of bottled water, including sparkling and pricey designer bottles.

Harry Sokol, 33, left CVS with a grocery cart brimming with a dozen gallon jugs of water for himself and friends. He said he was worried about having enough for his family.

“I hope it won’t be long,’’ he said.

Dana Angood, 25, and Tiffany Negri, 24, ran out to buy water 10 minutes after hearing about the emergency via Facebook and text messages.

“We figured there would be a frenzy of people,’’ Angood said.

“And there were,’’ Negri added.

“It’s a huge pain,’’ Stephanie Chapman said outside a CVS on Newbury Street, a case of water lying next to her red high heels.

Chapman, a 27-year-old South End resident, said the boil-water order put a damper on her dinner at a nearby restaurant. A big stack of pots teetered in the kitchen, and waiters said they couldn’t wash a thing without boiled water.

“I was like, ‘Can I eat this salad?’ ’’ she said.

Restaurants coped with the crisis, paring down drink menus and figuring out how to wash vegetables as they served a stream of patrons on a warm Saturday evening. At Piattini, a cafe on Newbury Street, the water-boil order meant no smoothies or iced coffee.

Miguel Claravall, manager of Real Deal, a pizza shop in Jamaica Plain, said he had to stop serving coffee, fountain soda, and ice.

“We can’t make more than half of our usual drinks,’’ Claravall said. “We can only serve bottled drinks, as if we need more plastic in the world.’’

He said he wasn’t sure how he was going to make pizza dough for the next few days.

Across the street at Costello’s, bartender Mary Naughton said she hoped to sell more beer.

Restaurant representatives called the water-boil order a major inconvenience.

“It impacts our level of service,’’ Ann Marie Lagrotteria, senior vice president of the Back Bay Restaurant Group, said at bouchée. The brasserie on Newbury Street was making iced tea the old-fashioned way — by boiling the main ingredient.

Still, Lagrotteria said the water-boil order might bring in more customers: “Residents in the city might be a little uneasy about cooking at home.’’

State officials have asked communities to conserve water — no car washing or yard watering — to ensure enough supply for emergency use such as firefighting. Boston Beer Co. is willing to halt brewing operations.

Major institutions affected — colleges, hospitals, and nursing homes — were alerting people not to drink tap water via text messages, e-mails, and hand-written signs posted on drinking fountains.

Boston University officials warned students against using hot plates to boil water, and said they were seeking to secure large quantities of water for dining halls.

At Boston Medical Center, one of the city’s busiest hospitals with 639 beds and an emergency room often brimming with patients, doctors were ordered to wash their hands with bottled water before operating, and workers handed out bottled water to all patients.

The water resources authority, working with the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, was able to reconfigure the pipelines in the Longwood Medical Area to allow Children’s and Brigham and Women’s hospitals, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to go about business as usual.

Dr. Rob Schreiber, physician in chief for Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale, said it has enough bottled water to last several days. The center, which has about 500 beds, was making sure the staff unplugged appliances, such as ice machines, that connect to the water supply so no contaminated ice was inadvertently served to patients, he said.

The Mandarin Oriental hotel in the Back Bay was distributing free bottles of water to guests. Staff emptied ice machines and a vendor brought in ice that had not been affected.

The water crisis will not affect today’s Walk for Hunger, which is expected to draw 40,000 people. Spokeswoman Rita Guastella said walk officials plan to bring 15,000 gallons of bottled water for walkers — double the usual amount, in part because of the water-boil order and in part because of the mid-80s temperatures expected. She said any juice and coffee served along the walk will be prepared with bottled water.

Michael Paulson, David Beard, David Abel, Erin Ailworth, Kay Lazar, Jeannie Nuss, and Caitlin Castello contributed to this report. Tracy Jan can be reached at

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