Taint Misbehavin'

The botched bad-water incident in Miami Beach raises doubts about whether Public Works works

On August 28, when state and local officials discovered that Miami Beach's drinking water supply was contaminated, they jotted down a notice on a piece of paper, slipped it into a fax machine, and sent it to about 30 local media organizations. Then they went back to what they were doing, secure in the knowledge that the city's 93,000 residents and business owners A not to mention thousands of out-of-town tourists and causeway-crossing pleasure seekers A would get the order: DON'T DRINK THE WATER UNLESS YOU BOIL IT FIRST. Nobody thought it might be more expedient to relay the message directly to the city's hotels and restaurants, catering to their customary Saturday night crowds. Nobody posted notices along public thoroughfares. Nobody even contacted the Chamber of Commerce.

The bottoms-up line regarding the boil-water order that remained in effect until this past Wednesday morning: If you weren't glued to a TV set or tuned in to local radio, if you guzzled unboiled H2O from the tap without a care in the world, you can be thankful the contamination wasn't, in the parlance of health administrators, "acute."

But don't thank the State Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS), or the Miami Beach Public Works Department, or the Miami Beach Office of the City Manager, or the Miami Beach Police Department. All those agencies received the news, then passed it on until the responsibility for disseminating the warning ultimately fell to the media.

It all began on Friday, August 27, when Miami Beach Public Works inspectors discovered coliform bacteria in the drinking water during routine monthly sampling. State regulations require that before issuing a health advisory, inspectors must collect contaminated samples on two consecutive days. At about 9:30 p.m. Saturday, after the second day's tests came back positive, HRS, which has the ultimate authority to issue health warnings, instructed the Miami Beach Public Works Department to issue the boil-water order. From there the duty was transferred to the city manager's office, and to the police department. Police public-information officer Al Boza telephoned most of Dade's media organizations -- although not all of them -- and followed up the phone calls with a faxed press release. Several stations, he reports, promptly carried the warning on the 11:00 p.m. news.

Most TV news enthusiasts got the word immediately. Managers at the 1206-room Fontainebleau Hilton at 4441 Collins Avenue, for instance, saw a TV broadcast, immediately copied notices to all guests, and provided bottled water and bagged ice, says Paul Breslin, the hotel's executive assistant manager. But just down the beach, at the considerably smaller Traymore Hotel at 2445 Collins, general manager Marco Patitucci didn't learn of the boil-water admonition until Sunday evening, a full day after officials issued the warning, when he turned on a televised baseball game. And anyone unfortunate enough to rely on the Miami Herald as the sole source for news was probably pouring from the tap until Monday morning, unless he or she received the very last edition of the Sunday paper, which included a six-line mention on the bottom of an inside page of the "Local" section.

The message relayed to viewers and readers, though, was often incomplete -- or worse. Two days after the announcement was made, a local TV station broadcast an erroneous report that the water was unsafe even for bathing. According to HRS biological scientist Juan Suarez, while the particular type of coliform bacteria detected in the water did not indicate fecal contamination, it did point to the possible -- but "unlikely" -- presence of disease-causing organisms. (Public works and health agents still don't know what caused the contamination, although they speculate that the testing equipment may have been contaminated or that the water system may not have been flushed regularly enough. The public works department periodically forces water through its water pipes at high pressure to clear the lines of any sediment or bacteria. When the contamination was confirmed Saturday, crews immediately flushed the lines with the hope of eliminating any localized problem.)

Several officials say that if there had been a greater health risk to the public, they would have spread the word more vigorously. How that might have been accomplished, however, remains unclear, and according to administrators at the Dade County Public Health Unit of HRS, the same steps would have been taken. "Typically, no other methods are used other than [notifying the media]," asserts Samir Elmir, acting environmental administrator of the Public Health Unit.

"We'll be reviewing everything to see if there were shortcomings," HRS environmental administrator Walter Livingstone admitted this past week, adding that HRS received no reports of sickness as a result of the problem. "We're looking at better means of reaching more people." In addition to media outlets and subsequent word of mouth, the methods under consideration, he says, rely on direct contact with residents and visitors, and include loudspeakers mounted atop vehicles patrolling the streets; phone banks to notify restaurant, hotel, and community-based organizations, which in turn would get in touch with their members; and neighborhood postings. As a result of discussions with New Times, Livingstone says, HRS will change its existing guidelines and take responsibility for notifying the public in all future public health emergencies, rather than handing the task to local public works departments.

 
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