EDITORIAL: Cities need better outreach on service issues

June 30, 2016 GMT

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” - Paul Newman in the 1967 movie “Cool Hand Luke.”


Today’s water outage in west Beaumont is different from last week’s. This time, about 500 customers along Major Drive’s subdivisions between Delaware Street and Folsom Road know (or should know) that their faucets will be dry for a few hours this morning. That’s different from last week, when many other customers woke up - to their surprise - to a waterless day. One man was caught in a shower half-soaped and couldn’t rinse off until his wife went out and bought some bottled water.

The difference this time was better communication. Even though city officials tried to get the word out last week about the planned outage, the effort wasn’t always successful.

The city was partially relying on an outdated list of land telephone lines, which of course are becoming as rare as manual transmissions in cars or trucks. To their credit, the city also used modern means like Twitter and old-fashioned door-tagging.

City Manager Kyle Hayes acknowledged that the city could have communicated better - but some residents could’ve done more too. If Beaumonters won’t call the city emergency line at 311 and provide their cell phone numbers or email addresses, the city will not have a way to contact them.

The city’s Facebook page was a problem too last week. It was named “Beaumont Texas City Hall,” which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Fortunately, it has been renamed “City of Beaumont - Government.”

Every city needs something like Beaumont’s 311 system - a way to put out emergency information and a way for residents to update their contact points. Local governments also need an active presence on social media.

If both sides make the effort, you still won’t like the service interruption, but you may be able to accept it better. About 500 water customers along Major Drive’s subdivisions between Delaware Street and Folsom Road can expect a service interruption from 8 p.m. Thursday to mid-morning Friday as a contractor replaces a valve on a 24-inch line on Major’s east side.

A “boil water” notice is likely to be in effect for a larger affected area because of low pressure in the water lines, city officials said today in a presentation about the job.

The “boil water” notice should be lifted entirely within 24 hours of the repair, or by Saturday morning, said City Manager Kyle Hayes.

“We know a ‘boil water’ notice scares people,” Hayes said. “But we have to issue the notice. We believe it’s safe.”

State law mandates the “boil water” notice when water pressure in a water main drops and water stands still, he said.

The water piped to the Major Drive area flows from city-owned wells in southern Hardin County and requires minimal treatment with chlorine before it is pumped to customers.

If water sits for a while, the city has to issue the “boil” notice.

The city discovered the valve had closed during routine maintenance a week ago and had to replace it. The city needed a specialized contractor for the work on the line, which was installed in 1971, The work will cost $25,000, said public works director Joe Majdalani.

Customers were informed by voice mail, email, Twitter, through the city’s website and on its Facebook page. Still, the information might not have reached all the affected people, Hayes said.

“Could we have communicated better? Probably so,” Hayes said.

Part of the problem is that many people have given up their telephone land lines in favor of mobile phones. If people want to receive emergency communications from the city, they must register their mobile phone numbers or email addresses with the city’s 311 emergency operations center notification service, Hayes said.

Capt. Brad Penisson of the Beaumont Fire Department said extra effort will be made to make fire response dependable and effective during the time water pressure is low or turned off.

Penisson said fire engines carry between 500 and 750 gallons per unit and a temporary line laid across Delaware Street from Wilcox Street into the affected subdivisions will help provide more water pressure.

The city will barricade through-traffic on Delaware between 8 p.m. Thursday and 10 a.m. Friday. Local traffic still will be able to reach subdivisions like Barrington Heights. Alternate routes are available on Gladys Avenue to the south or Folsom Drive to the north.

The 500 homes in the affected area use about 300 gallons each per day, Majdalani said.

That’s about 150,000 gallons of consumption per day. The water tank on Dishman Road is filled to capacity, which is 2 million gallons, Hayes said.

The project was delayed last week because the city did not want to put a “boil water” advisory in place for a week until it worked out a plan for repairs, Hayes said.

This is the largest repair the water utilities department the city has attempted, Majdalani said.

Here is a link to the city of Beaumont’s explanation and scope of work: http://beaumonttexas.gov/city-perform-valve-replacement-24-inch-water-line-n-major-drive-boil-water-advisory-notice-remain-effect/


Shut off with no notice

City uses landline phone list to notify residents of water shutoff

By Dan Wallach

Beaumont contractor John Hamilton was in his shower around 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, soaped up, head full of shampoo and the water stopped. Cold. Nothing. Just off.

Hamilton’s wife went to Kroger to buy a couple of gallons of bottled water so he could rinse off.

Neither the Hamiltons or his wife’s parents, who all live in the Fairfield subdivision off Major Drive, had any idea the city had planned to shut off their water.

The water supplied to the neighborhood and other nearby businesses snapped off when the city’s Water Utilities department closed a valve along a 24-inch main along Major Drive.

The city was able to notify a number of customers in advance of the water shutdown by placing red tags on their front doors.

A leak in another valve on Wednesday, however, caused the affected area to expand, leaving a lot of folks who hadn’t been told suddenly unable to flush toilets and, in some cases, with soap in their eyes.

Joe Majdalani, the city’s director of public works, said on Thursday the city did not notify the people in the expanded work area in a timely fashion. The interruption in service and the sudden expansion of the affected area has called into question the city’s notification system.

The city updates its telephone call system every three months from the regional 911 emergency telephone system, said Beaumont police Capt. Tim Ocnaschek, who also is the city’s emergency management coordinator.

The problem is the 911 system is based on landlines, which many have dumped in favor of cellphones.

It’s on residents to sign up for an emergency telephone notification by calling the city’s 311 line to register their cellphone numbers and an email address, Ocnaschek said.

“We have maybe a 5-percent registration rate,” he said. “It’s not good, but it’s fairly normal”

He said the city sent out up to 3,000 robo-calls to landlines, which doesn’t mean those lines still exist, and perhaps 50 to 60 emails about the water shutdown. The calls made to cellphones were a “relatively low number,” he said.

Majdalani said the city is working on improvements in notifying people.

“We’ve never had to work on a major line like this,” Majdalani said. “This was something new. We need to have a plan to address these issues.”

The city did post updates on the water shutoff on Tuesday and Wednesday to its Facebook page.

That Facebook page, however, was called “Beaumont Texas City Hall” which might not be an obvious selection for residents seeking information on city services.

The page was renamed on Thursday to “City of Beaumont - Government”

Ward 2 Councilman Mike Getz, who said he heard from plenty of angry constituents Wednesday, said other city departments also have their own Face-book pages, some of which haven’t been updated in a long time.

Majdalani said the city also must send real-time updates to area news media so reporters can post it to their websites and share on social media. By doing that, so many more people might see the information when they need it most, he said.

Hamilton, the contractor left stranded in his shower, was out on Thursday checking on his in-laws, who live in the same subdivision.

Although their water service was restored late Wednesday night, they did not know whether they were under a “boil water” notice, he said.

Majdalani said there was no “boil water” notice, but the city suggested it as an option in an advisory.

Irene White, who said she turns 86 years old today, took a break on Thursday from yard work, seated in her garage with a fan blowing back her still-blonde hair.

“If my neighbor hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have known,” she said, referring to the suspension in water service. She said she did not receive any notification from the city that the water would be cut off.

She was able to fill her tub and some pitchers to put in the refrigerator for drinking water. She also found a red tag on the “boil water” advisory on her doorknob early Thursday.

Several other homes in her neighborhood also had tags on the doorknobs Thursday, but no information on how long they should consider boiling their water.

Sue and Marshall Rowe, who live in the Pecan Place subdivision, said they received the city’s notice on the interruption in water service and service resumed when the city said it would.

“We just want them to tell us when it’s good to drink,” Sue Rowe said.