Emails from DeKalb County show concern about water pressure issues affecting hospitals
DeKalb County experienced a major loss of water pressure on July 23 and was under a boil water advisory until July 27.
The incident was caused by a mower hitting a fire hydrant, and it led to major disruptions in service throughout DeKalb, particularly in Decatur, Avondale Estates, Tucker and Stone Mountain.
Throughout the incident, residents complained about a lack of communication from county officials. Some of those residents included people in high places, most notably John Shelton, the CEO of DeKalb Medical Center.
Shelton emailed County CEO Lee May directly on July 24 about his concerns over how the county responded to hospital officials concerned about the lack of water pressure. The email is part of hundreds released by DeKalb in response to an open records request filed by Decaturish. We have reached out to the county to ask questions raised by the emails and we are awaiting the county’s response.
While we are still sifting through the emails, the concerns about how pressure issues would affect DeKalb Medical stand out.
“Lee, DeKalb Medical has a real concern about how the county communicates with us in a time of emergency,” Shelton wrote. “The recent water main break last night is a perfect example. … Tried to reach out to the county regarding the issue with very little response. I would like for your COO and my COO to meet and develop a formal communication plan that will be used in times of emergency. This recent issue could have caused life-threatening concerns. I would appreciate your thoughts on this matter.”
Shelton was unavailable for comment but a spokesperson, Nick West, said “I did, however, learn that Lee May responded quickly to John’s email. DeKalb Medical did receive the support it needed from the county, and since the crisis our COO Dane Henry met with county COO Zach Williams regarding communications going forward. It was a good and productive meeting, and we know we were heard and will be working closely with the county as it works to improve its emergency management process.”
DeKalb does have a Local Emergency Operations Plan, which was also released in response to our request. The plan specifically addresses communications with local hospitals, defined as one of several “critical facilities.” One of the response steps is to “Warn critical facilities,” according to the plan.
Sue Loeffler, Director of DeKalb Emergency Management Agency, told commissioners during a meeting on Aug. 4 that the county immediately contacted local hospitals via conference calls after the pressure began to drop.
Behind the scenes, however, May told Shelton that something was amiss with communications.
May replied to Shelton, telling him that he shared his frustrations.
“John, my apologies,” May wrote. “I am very upset right (now) … I don’t mean to exaggerate but, where you are concerned this is a matter of life and death. We have an apparatus, but the ball is being dropped within the user department which limits communications among the larger organization internally and externally.”
The county’s explanation of what happened goes like this: on July 23, a county mowing crew hit a fire hydrant on Henderson Mill Road. It was connected to a 48 inch main transmission line buried 25 feet in the ground.
A contractor for the county said crews had difficulty locating the shut off valve, which led to pressure being lowered several times over the weekend. The boil water advisory left many residents and business owners, particularly restaurants, frustrated. Some restaurants have had to limit their menus to avoid using the county water during the advisory.
But the issue of how lower pressures would affect hospitals was something county officials recognized soon after the accident.
Charles Lambert, interim director of Watershed Management, concluded early on that the issue would create major service disruptions throughout the county. However, the county didn’t start communicating with the public about the break until July 24.
On the evening of July 23, Lambert emailed other county employees concerning the potential magnitude of the event.
“Keep in mind this will shut down a lot of the county and you might want to dig the valve first to see if that might help get on it,” Lambert wrote.
A few hours later, Lambert asked for an update on the repairs and suggested a boil water advisory might be imminent. He also indicated the outage could affect local hospitals.
“I need a time line on repair as a large area has low pressure and now includes several hospitals,” Lambert wrote. “I also need to send some notice out about this as we are quickly approaching a boil water alert.”
The boil water advisory was not officially issued until July 25 after the county’s attempts to fix the problem failed.
Early the next morning, July 24, Loeffler, head of the DeKalb Emergency Management Agency, emailed Lambert to update him on the status of water pressure at DeKalb Medical.
“DeKalb Med still does not have normal pressure and has been as low as 20 lbs thru the nite,” she wrote. “They are very concerned with time frame and total shut off to fix as they have patients in surgery this morning and less than 20 lbs means no water to the upper floors of the hospital.”
Lambert replied that the department was working quickly to resolve the issue.
“I am doing the best I can to resolve this. We have been telling them at least 10 years now to get a booster pump and backup water supply,” he wrote. “Most of the system should have pressure and as we restore tanks it should improve.”
Associate Editor Dena Mellick contributed to this story.
Editor’s note: Reporting like this takes time and costs money. This records request alone cost us $145, and it takes hours to sift through emails and call sources. We couldn’t do it without the support of our subscribers, who pay us $6 a month to keep our reporting from going behind a pay-wall. If you value Decaturish and the kind of reporting we do, please consider becoming a subscriber.