TAMPA An animal believed to be a squirrel chewed through a power line Friday, briefly shutting down Tampa’s entire water system and forcing a half-million customers to boil their drinking water through the weekend.
People emptied local supermarket shelves of bottled water faster than managers could call warehouses for resupply. Scores of restaurants and hotels joined the lines, buying bottled water and ice by the truckload.
Still, some restaurants gave up and shut down, including Maggiano’s Little Italy and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro at Westshore Plaza. One McDonald’s restaurant said it would stay open as long as it could find stores selling bottled soda.
“This is the first time, to my knowledge, that we have had a service area-wide, boil-water notice,” said city Water Department Director Brad Baird. The water plant lost power at about 1:30 p.m. Friday and remained down for about an hour.
The problem started before dawn Friday when a squirrel chewed a power line 25 feet up a utility pole in the vicinity of the plant, said TECO spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs. About 1,000 customers lost power, including the David L. Tippin Water Treatment Facility near Rowlett Park.
TECO crews were at work on the line when a switch at the water plant that should have helped absorb the sudden change in power failed, knocking the plant offline at about 1:30 p.m., Jacobs said.
On the advice of the Hillsborough County Health Department, city officials issued a precautionary boil water notice at about 2:30 p.m. that covers all residents and businesses in the city.
It remains in effect until Saturday night at the earliest, perhaps as late as Sunday night.
It also affects county neighborhoods including Town ‘N’ Country, Clair Mel and Hershel Heights near Temple Terrace. The outage also affects International Plaza, WestShore Mall and Tampa International Airport.
In short, anyone who gets a water bill from the City of Tampa is affected by the notice, Baird said.
“In one way or another, every customer was affected,” Baird said.
After the power failure, water officials switched to diesel generators. That allowed them to restore water pressure citywide about an hour after the blackout, Baird said. City and TECO crews reconnected the plant to the electrical grid at about 4 p.m., Jacobs said.
The water plant has had power outages before, particularly during the summer storm season, Baird said. The failure of the switch turned this outage into a major event, he said.
“This is a very unusual situation.”
A detailed map of the city of Tampa service area is at bit.ly/YrFVhB.
The scale of the boil-water notice is unusual, said Tom Curtis, deputy executive director of the American Waterworks Association, a trade group representing water utilities nationwide.
“I can’t personally remember one bigger than that,” Curtis said.
Over the next day or so, water department officials will be testing the water coming out of the plant to make sure it’s safe, Baird said.
Remote chances that pathogens could be in the water prompted the city’s two largest hospitals to initiate emergency plans. St. Joseph’s Hospitals are conserving water at its three city centers and increasing its use of bottled water for hundreds of patients and its staff, spokeswoman Lisa Patterson said.
Tampa General Hospital already operates a secondary purification system for all city water entering its Davis Islands campus, spokesman John Dunn said.
The high-number of transplant and at-risk patients requires them to use a process involving a dissolved gas called chlorine dioxide. Health Department Director Doug Holt deemed this level of purification sufficient, Dunn said.
Even though there were no breaks in the water line, even a temporary loss in pressure creates the risk that bacteria could enter the system and make people sick, Baird said.
The brief power failure created ripples effect across the region.
The University of Tampa posted an alert to its website and sent texts and emails to warn students and reminded everyone to make sure all faucets were turned to the “off” position to prevent flooding when the water was turned on again. A spokesman said the university would be providing bottled water for all students who live on campus.
Bottled water will be offered as usual to the 25,000 runners expected for this weekend’s Gasparilla Distance Classic, said Director Susan Harmeling. For Sunday’s half marathon and 8K races, 5-gallon containers of Gatorade will be mixed using purified water.
“This is something we can take care of in time,” she said.
Water misters along Bayshore Boulevard will still spray racers with city water, however, so “if you choose to run through them please be aware & cautious.”
The defining water-bucket moment in “Flashdance The Musical” will still splash the stage at the Straz Center through Sunday thanks to a 25 gallon reservoir that can be refilled with bottled water. In an iconic dance number, leading lady Emily Padgett leans back on a chair, pulls a chain and is drenched by a bucket of water.
“Water for ‘Flashdance’ is safe,” said Paul Bilyeu, director of public relations at The Straz Center.
Restaurants face a special challenge because they need to both cook food and wash dishes. They are among some of the largest users of city-supplied water. Many use their own water purification systems to improve the flavor of drinking water.
“We're not preparing any meals with any city water,” said Casey Gonzmart, one of the family owners of the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. “We have a large enough surplus of clean dishes to serve several hundred meals.”
Commercial dish washers heat water to especially high temperatures, but not to the boiling point.
As for how the restaurant will serve meals in the days ahead, Gonzmart said: “We're all the same boat on this, and will have to take the proper precautions.”
If it came down to it, Gonzmart said, the staff will wash dishes in bottled water.
Michele Barker, owner of the Refinery restaurant, heard the water warning and quickly went to Publix and Kmart and bought a truckload of ice and dozens of extra-large water jugs.
“Our distribution center is right nearby in Plant City,” said Sweetbay Supermarket spokeswoman Nicole LeBeau. “So we can have bottled water easily restocked and bring in more.”
As a precaution, the Starbucks store on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa disconnected its large water reserve tanks from the city system. That tank has several hundred gallons and should last for some time with their drip-coffee system. Other drinks use high-temperature steam that would sterilize the process.
Though there’s no decision yet, Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing may have to interrupt its daily production, said spokesman Geiger Powell.
The brewing process starts by boiling water and grains, he said, and the entire process is sterile through bottling. But the question is what to do between production runs.
“The issue is when we need to clean the tanks,” he said. “If we can’t use the water, what then? In the meantime, we can’t clean out glasses or growlers, and for the whole weekend we’ll be using plastic cups in our tasting rooms.”
As for what kind of rodent caused the outage, TECO officials could not say.
Staff writers Mary Shedden and Elizabeth Behrman contributed to this report