Around 2am on Saturday morning, Brittany Gibbons, a mother of three who lives just half an hour outside Toledo in Swanton, Ohio, noticed a strange post on her local ABC News affiliate’s Facebook page: “Urgent message from city: Toledoans asked not to drink or boil water.”
The advisory warned about the health impacts — abnormal liver function, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, numbness, or dizziness — of drinking or touching Toledo tap water, even after it had been boiled. An algal bloom on Lake Erie had parked itself right in Maumee Bay, churning out a dangerous toxic substance called microcystin, right on top of the water intake system for Toledo’s Collins Park Water Treatment Plant. The city of Toledo and surrounding areas, containing 500,000 people, all got their water from this facility. Swanton Township is in Fulton County, bordering Lucas County, and was not in the initial warning, but because it gets its water from Toledo, the town was affected.
Gibbons, who has lived there her entire life, went back to bed, and by the time she woke up again on Saturday, most stores that sold bottled water were empty. Restaurants closed, businesses closed, even the Zoo closed, while everyone waited for local authorities to do something about the problem and signal when water would be safe to drink again.
“It’s difficult to not be able to cook without water,” Gibbons told ThinkProgress on Sunday. “Even in terms of cleaning food. Some of our groceries have pulled all produce and even some meats due to water. Add to that the restaurants being closed, and healthy food for your family becomes more complicated.”
Relief arrived in the form of water trucks from nearby states and the federal government, and water lines became the backdrop of local TV news coverage. Samples of Toledo’s water got flown to an EPA facility in Cincinnati to examine the extent of the contamination.
Sundays are usually family cookout day at Gibbons’ house. “I’m not sure we’ll be able to do that today, as we’ll be sneaking showers at our friends home out of town,” she said on Sunday.
On Monday morning, Gibbons told ThinkProgress that while she and her family were doing okay, they were “at the point where the inability to do laundry and dishes [was] finally getting a little irritating, as it’s piling up.” With the constant local news footage of water getting passed out to residents, armchair speculation and summarization with little new information, she said, “it’s starting to feel like The Truman Show.”
The Mayor of Toledo, Michael Collins, held an unprecedented 3 a.m. press conference early Monday morning, announcing that it was his decision to keep the water advisory in place because of two tests that were red flags. The latest test results from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. EPA found that water contamination levels were safe.
— Jeff Smith (@JSmith13ABC) August 4, 2014
Later that morning, at 9:30 a.m., Collins announced that the water advisory had finally been lifted.
Gibbons answered some of ThinkProgress’ questions as she was gearing up for a “water run” on Sunday, and again just as the water ban was officially lifted on Monday morning.
TP: How did you first find out about this water crisis?
BG: Around 2am Saturday morning, my local ABC news affiliate posted the warning to their Facebook page. Prior to that, we’d had no other warning or sense of concern about the water supply.
The initial 2am warning was a pretty dramatic warning to not touch, drink, or use the water in absolutely any way. We were warned of health concerns both from ingesting or even touching it. It immediately caused a run in bottled water, and by the time I woke up again around 8am, most stores in all surrounding areas had been wiped clean.
You said you were going to go on a “water run” — what is life like now that a phrase like that is such an important part of your vocabulary?
It’s 50% living like Laura Ingalls Wilder and 50% like we’re in Wall-E. We load our SUV up with containers and coolers to fill twice a day at our friends’ well. All of it is irritating. You don’t really realize how constant water is in your life until it’s cut off and labeled toxic.
How have the authorities been handling this? Do you think they need to do more, or be clearer with residents?
The run of information seems to be somewhat scattered. We’ve gotten no real answers regarding timelines, fixes or accurate safety instructions. The latter seems to change hourly. First it was no touching of the water at all, then it was maybe you can shower if you’re a healthy adult. The uncertainty is equal parts scary and frustrating.
The metro areas have really stepped up bringing in water and getting it out to the people. Loads of amazing volunteers and agencies. It heartwarming and makes us all feel a sense of pride. Rurally, the help is not as accessible, but we’re used to that at this point. It’s easier for us to bring containers to friends with wells who have generously allowed us to fill as needed.
What are things like for you and your family now [on Sunday]? Are you able to shower?
In reality, it’s only been a day. In terms of disasters, this rates as a mild inconvenience on a personal level. The real issues we are facing at this point are the blows to our local economy and the potential scary realization that our water is not safe, and maybe hasn’t been for a while now.
Restaurants have had to remain closed. They are unable to serve drinks, wash dishes, and produce or cook food due to lack of safe water. Last night we took the kids to the movie theater, which was open, but we were asked to bring our own bottled drinks.
In terms of hygiene, we’ve been limited to hand sanitizer and baby wipes. They have claimed healthy adults could probably shower if needed, but I don’t think anyone feels confident in that right now. It’s not that we feel inconvenienced, it’s more that we feel angry and kept in the dark. Our water bills are going up yet our water system is flawed and has now put our entire area in danger. It’s hard believe this just happened at 2am Saturday morning. It’s hard to believe they have been blind to everything up until this point. I’m proud of the volunteers, but disappointed in the administration. It’s a scary situation.
What are you telling your children?
Our kids are 5, 7, and 8 and they’ve been instructed not to touch or use water. They don’t fully understand what is happening. We won’t let them watch the news. It’s like marathons of blinking red alerts and live updates and flashing buttons. It’s scary for adults, it’d be terrifying to children.
Do you know other people who are impacted by this crisis that you’re particularly worried about?
Naturally, we’re concerned about the elderly and those with impacted health issues. Hospitals are serving cold meals and functioning off of bottled water.
But there is also concern for the animals. We’ve been instructed not to allow our pets to consume any tap water, so getting bottled to shelters and rescues is a huge concern. Bottled water is at a premium right now, I’d hate for pet safety to be an afterthought.
Algal blooms have happened before — had you heard about them and what they could do to local communities?
Lake Erie is a shallow lake. We haven’t had much rain and the weather hasn’t helped. Boaters and fishermen have definitely noted the algae and problem with the lake, but it’s never been a worry concerning our drinking water.
Even the EPA maintains that you can currently eat fish from the lake. So either we’ve been aloof or misinformed? I’m not sure, it feels scary.
There have also been recent problems with a spike in E. coli levels at Lake Erie beaches, do you know people who have spent much time on or near the lake recently?
My brother Adam is a fisherman, and in recent years has cut back in his fishing from the lake. Personally, it hasn’t been a destination spot for us in some time.
Do you feel like you were adequately informed and briefed on what you should be doing?
No. I tuned into the Sunday morning press conference from the Mayor of Toledo and there was just not information or facts. The reality is that they might not have them yet, and that’s a tough place to be with hundreds of thousands of people scared and without water. But the changing information and mixed messages and rampant rumors that are not being addressed is a huge problem. We obviously want answers, but in the meantime, we want to feel like the instructions were getting are correct and safe.
How do you feel about the results still not being made public?
The way these press conferences are going, and how hard information is being withheld, is troubling. The types, frequency, and locations of testing has been inconsistent. We were told at a 3am press conference that EPA tests looked promising, but Mayor Collins wanted to do more tests in Toledo, which somehow override EPA testing. The mayor also alluded that while most tests looked good, two isolated neighborhoods were troublesome, then wouldn’t list the neighborhoods. This is a disaster and health emergency, there is a fine line in not inducing panic and deceiving the general public. I think most of us feel deceived right now.
Do you think there should be a federally mandated limit on microcystin if the World Health Organization has one?
Absolutely. One theme that been pretty apparent through the public handling of this disaster is that it’s “new” and “unprecedented,” but the reality is that it’s not. It’s been an issue within the Lake Erie, as well as surrounding areas for some time. It’s clear that in order for our water administrators to be proactive, they need legal ramifications.
Should the authorities consider how climate change can cause more intense downpours and sewer overflows when managing the Great Lakes and the agricultural and water activity around them? Are people thinking about this now?
Absolutely people are thinking that. The fact that it’s taken an environmental disaster to get people’s attention on global warming and farm waste is troubling. I imagine many environmental advocates and lovers of our amazing Great Lakes region are biting their tongues with “I told you so’s” right now.
Now that Mayor Collins has lifted the water ban, will you be drinking it?
I will absolutely not be using the water at this time. Without information on how to accurately flush the systems in our home, I’m just not comfortable at this time endangering my family. I can’t go from “don’t touch it” to “go crazy” in two days. Maybe I’m waiting for an Erin Brockovich moment. I’ll drink the water when he does. Until then, I’ll continue to be vocal and flush our home system as best we can. We actually had a point and well up until two years ago. Next week, we’re reverting to our point.
How can people help?
Water has been shipped in and distributed. It’s been an amazing feat of humanity here. It’s heart warming. I’d love a healthy dose of hindsight right now, but since that’s off the table, I think we need awareness that will lead to prevention and proper care of our water and environment.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.