THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Adrian Walker

Wet behind the fears

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / May 3, 2010

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My first notice of Aquageddon came Saturday afternoon, when Boston police officers rolled through my neighborhood, warning everyone of imminent danger.

They were actually half a block away, so I had trouble making out their words. Eventually, I heard something about water. But I didn’t give it much thought.

I would discover the full dimensions of the crisis a couple of hours later, at my neighborhood CVS. On a Saturday night, the place was packed. There was a special line in the back for cases of water. The staff seemed somewhere between harried and overwhelmed.

I checked the Globe’s website and got caught up on the news — a huge water supply pipe had burst in Weston. Untreated water was flowing into homes across the region, and that water had to be boiled before drinking. The list of affected towns was lengthy. Tellingly, there wasn’t a hint of how long the crisis would last. And no doubt, it was a crisis.

Honestly, the Quabbin Reservoir has bothered me for a long time. Not the water we get from it, just the whole dark story of its beginning. Its creation, in the 1930s, required the destruction by flooding of four towns in Central Massachusetts — a nearly-forgotten piece of history told, fictionally, by none other than former governor William F. Weld in his novel, “Stillwater.’’ In real life, the protests of the people of Enfield, Dana, Prescott, and Greenwich left state legislators unmoved, and they lost a lawsuit to save their towns when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled against them.

Maybe this weekend was some kind of cosmic revenge. To watch the mass municipal freak-out, you might have thought we were back in a Great Depression or some other epochal event. Television news was blizzard coverage ramped up by a factor of 10: health advisories, school advisories, updates from the mayor and the governor. On and on it went.

Now, I understand that this is a major inconvenience. Having to boil water is a pain. Mindless tasks like brushing teeth now take a little thought. Grocery stores were said to be running out of water. (Trust me, Poland Spring and its competitors will make sure the stores aren’t out for any length of time. This is their Super Bowl.) We’re in for a trying week.

But has panic become the new normal? A ferocious survival instinct was on display this weekend, even though this isn’t really a threat to survival. The psychology was familiar to anyone who watched the city shut down a few months ago for a blizzard that never came. It’s as though the capacity for distinguishing between a problem and a crisis has gone away.

Our politicians certainly swing right into disaster mode. Governor Deval Patrick — who is clearly under a microscope here — seemed anxious to assure everyone yesterday that the crisis will end within “days, not weeks.’’ From his perspective it had better, because this could easily affect the election.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino was almost too eager to show that he had things under control, announcing a “photo opportunity’’ to catch him handing out water in a senior center last night. If every crisis is an opportunity, as the cliché goes, he was making the most of it.

As of last night, the underlying cause of the burst pipe seam was still a mystery. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority was insisting, reasonably, that fixing it is more important at this point than reconstructing its cause. Welders hoped to be able to substantially complete repairs last night, though testing the water and deeming it safe to drink may take several days.

The water problem will get sorted out. I hope the same can be said of our embattled psyches. Some things are just supposed to work — like turning the tap and being able to wash the dishes — and there’s something deeply unsettling about simple routines gone wrong.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

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