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Messages from Charlotte Water officials show delays, confusion after major water main break left thousands with contaminated water

WBTV Investigates: Emails and text messages between department leaders show that a response to the massive water main break and Frequently Asked Questions were only being drafted and finalized past midnight the day of the break, nearly eight hours after it happened
Published: Nov. 18, 2021 at 11:53 AM EST|Updated: Nov. 18, 2021 at 4:32 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A WBTV investigation has obtained text messages and emails from the highest-ranking employees at Charlotte Water showing delays and confusion after a major water main break along Remount Road.

On October 18, the water main break impacted water pressure for hundreds of thousands of Charlotte residents.

Emails and text messages between department leaders show that a response to the massive water main break and Frequently Asked Questions were only being drafted and finalized past midnight the day of the break, nearly eight hours after it happened.

Past coverage: Records show Charlotte is miles short of goal to replace aging pipes following massive water main break

One of the biggest problems after the water main break was whether or not residents should boil their water - a precaution taken when the water supply could be tainted.

Charlotte Water
Charlotte Water(WBTV)

New internal communications show that staff originally wanted to issue a boil water notice quickly.

However, that was changed and later implemented in the dead of night, causing concern and confusion.

“The decision, part of whether to go on the boil water notice, you don’t immediately, you don’t have a water main break and don’t immediately go to that decision,” said Charlotte Water Director Angela Charles. “There’s a time for evaluation in there.”

Charlotte Water response
Charlotte Water response(WBTV)

Previous: ‘This one was historical’: Water service restored, Boil Water Advisory issued after major water main break in Charlotte

But new internal communications from Director Angela Charles show the boil water decision happened differently.

An email was sent to Charles at 8:50 p.m. with a draft of the notice to residents was called a Boil Water Advisory and said, “when water service is restored consumers are advised to boil all water used for human consumption.”

However, 20 minutes later, a new draft appeared, called “Low Water Pressure Advisory” that said “in an abundance of caution, customers who were affected by low or no water pressure can boil water used for human consumption.”

The advisory was not sent for more than five hours after the initial water main break, and by 1:30 a.m. the next morning, yet another advisory was issued, this one a stronger recommendation to boil water.

Previous: ‘Age can be a factor’: Some question dated water pipes after massive line break

Charlotte Water
Charlotte Water(WBTV)

WBTV has twice requested an interview with Charles after the water main break but our requests have been denied.

Charles was out of town during the water main break, accepting an award at a water conference.

However, the emails show the final decisions were still flowing through Charles even as she was in Chicago.

So, WBTV Investigates asked whether Charles appointed anyone as acting director for the duration of her trip.

In an email response, a spokesperson wrote “Charlotte Water operates under a chain of command that includes 5 deputies and a Director. That evening our Incident Command structure was led by Deputy Director David Czerr and backed up by Deputy Director Shawn Coffman for alternate shifts.”

Related: Work begins to replace pipe damaged in massive water main break in Charlotte

Charlotte Water
Charlotte Water(WBTV)

As late as midnight after the water main break, Charlotte Water employees were still working on drafting a FAQ for residents.

Communication specialists from other city departments were brought in to mitigate the fall out.

“The Frequently Asked Questions document was a continuation of communication efforts that started hours before midnight. As the evening progressed, more details were available and more information for customers was provided,” the spokesperson wrote.

“Please also note that there were verbal conversations taking place not only with Ms. Charles, but here in Charlotte, about the FAQ and other messaging well before midnight that would not be reflected in email since the incident command staff were all in the room together.”

Charlotte Water also identified a new tool to make communication with residents more effective following a water outage.

“In hindsight, a communication tool that allows Charlotte Water to pinpoint individual properties with specific messages would have been the most efficient solution. As a result of the October 18 event, Charlotte Water has already expedited the procurement and installation of that communication tool,” the spokesperson wrote.

The city of Charlotte has only provided WBTV with a fraction of the records we requested so we’re still waiting to get the whole picture of the response to the water main break and what took so long.

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