A City Without Water: Fort Lauderdale Declares Emergency After Main Break

It was a day that tested the patience and endurance of a hurricane-savvy community accustomed to much worse than a broken water pipe.
by | July 19, 2019 AT 7:14 AM

By Andrew Boryga

The alerts rained down on Fort Lauderdale residents in the wee hours of the morning on Thursday: Prepare for up to 36 hours without running water. Daniel Rossy got the alert as an automated phone call at 5 in the morning. "It was definitely a bad way to wake up," he said.

Rossy stood outside of a Publix near Wilton Manors. A yoga instructor who lives in Fort Lauderdale, he missed a day of work to fill a cart with necessities for his family: five cats and two dogs. Many others across the city did the same for their immediate families, halting plans, rearranging them, or abandoning them all together.

At the bottom of Rossy's cart was the 4 gallons of water he was permitted to buy, like everyone else at Publix. They were some of the last bottles plucked from shelves that across supermarkets in Broward County look as bone dry as the days leading up to a hurricane.

Rossy said he has been through boil alerts and hurricanes in the past. But usually, he has a heads up and can plan. The surprise nature of the shortage, sprung on over 200,000 people across Broward, made for a much different experience. "It's stressful," he admitted. He made his best effort at a smile, before allowing it to collapse on his face. "I'm just praying it only lasts a day."

Across Fort Lauderdale and large swaths of Broward, hospitals, hotels, malls, courthouses, restaurants, homeowners and everyone in between impacted by a day none of them saw coming had the same wish.

Water is essential to human life. But Thursday proved that it's also essential to functioning in Fort Lauderdale.

By noon, the county courthouse in downtown closed, creating a sprawling traffic jam. The Galleria Mall, host to over 100 major stores, didn't even bother opening its doors. Hotels, usually in the business of competing with each other for guests, spent much of the day scrambling to relocate those staying in their rooms. Restaurants on practically every corner locked their doors.

It was a day that tested the patience and endurance of a hurricane-savvy community accustomed to much worse than a broken water pipe. But it's one thing to prepare for a storm that you know is coming; it's another to awaken and discover your routine and comfort have vanished.

 

Moved between hotels

At Fort Lauderdale Beach, the Ritz Carlton was forced to ship its guests to hotels of a similar caliber outside of the county. Julie Stiack was one of those guests.

Instead of enjoying lunch or a margarita with the other guests of a large conference she was attending, Stiack was in line with them lugging her suitcase to a shuttle bus provided by the hotel to whisk her to another hotel in Key Biscayne. For Stiack, it was the second hotel move of the day. Earlier, she had been transferred to the Ritz from the Westin.

Across the street, at a smaller hotel, a front desk woman said there were no plans to do the same with her guests. "Hopefully it will be resolved by tomorrow," she said. "If not, we'll have to see." Behind her, guests were jumping in and out of the pool, as they might on any Thursday summer day in Fort Lauderdale.

The scene was one of the few pieces of normalcy in a day full of headaches.

Beginning in the morning, Fort Lauderdale-area restaurants, bars and breweries scrambled to amass backup supplies of water and ice and find a way to remain open, some resorting to less than ideal solutions.

Outside Mulligan's Beach House Bar & Grill on El Mar Drive, a Porta Potty was set up outside for patrons. The restaurant was also using plastic and paper for food service until their dishwasher was back in line.

Many other restaurants and businesses -- the lifeblood of the region's tourism industry -- simply closed, an economic impact that will likely stretch into the millions across affected areas.

Tim Petrillo, owner of several popular dining spots from downtown to the beach, shut them all down for lunch, dinner and happy hour. Between $150,000 and $175,000 in business was lost, and about 450 employees were not able to work. "It's sad. It's brutal," Petrillo said.

Amber Fitzgerald, general manager of Georgia Pig BBQ and Restaurant, called the situation "devastating."

At 12:45 p.m., the pitmaster and employees of the 66-year-old family-run barbecue joint closed the restaurant for the day. The cash-only eatery along State Road 7 lost water pressure around 11:30 a.m., about an hour into lunch service.

Lenore Gilbert, owner of Gilbert's 17th Street Grill on Cordova Road in Fort Lauderdale, said she woke up Thursday morning to the "frightening" news from the city about the water service. Her staff began gathering all the additional water they could find.

"This is really difficult for a small mom-and-pop restaurant struggling to make it day by day," she said.

Employees at shops and restaurants could be hurt the most. Ana Luiza de Souza, 20, works at the Faja Fit kiosk, which sells undergarments at Coral Ridge Mall. She also works at a Fort Lauderdale restaurant where she is a host from 5 to 9 p.m.

She was waiting to hear from the restaurant manager about whether they'll be open tonight. One day of no pay is OK, de Souza said. "But if there is no work tomorrow, or another day after that, it's complicated. I really need money to pay my bills."

Not even the beach could escape the reach of the possible water crisis.

In Fort Lauderdale, a stretch of sand near Castillo Street was conspicuously sparse for a muggy day reaching into the 90s.

A city employee named Hector who spends his days renting out beach chairs to sunscreen bathed visitors, waved a hand at all the empty, folded chairs before him. "This is not normal for a Thursday," he said.

One of the few people sitting in the sand were Erio Piper and his girlfriend from Brazil, visiting Florida for the second time. This visit was certainly different from the first.

Earlier in the day, Piper said, his hotel gave him gallons of water and directed him to keep them handy in case he might need them for bathing or drinking later. "It's not a great thing to hear on vacation," he said.

 

Scrambling for water

Across the area, officials also scrambled to get water and tips to their residents.

Three water distribution centers were promptly erected in Fort Lauderdale parks. One at Mills Pond Park had a long snaking line of cars by 2 p.m. Each waited for one 24-pack of water that was handed to each person in the vehicle with an ID card that listed an address affected by the shortage.

Mercedes Kenney was one of the drivers idling in the heat. After learning about the distribution center through a text, she rushed over for the water. "I need it for my husband," she said.

Her husband was recently diagnosed with diabetes and she said drinking water is crucial for his health. Although she had a few packs of her own at home, Kenney said she was grateful for anything else she could get.

"The last doctor's visit we went to, the doctor said to him, 'You've got to drink lots of water'," she said. She looked at the long line before her that was moving along as each driver collected water drive-through style and shrugged. "You got to wait for some things."

Other vulnerable populations also were planning for the shortage, such as senior centers and nursing homes. Dozens scrambled to stock up on additional drinking water for their elderly residents after receiving the alert in the morning. Many hospitals reached into their emergency supplies normally set aside for events such as hurricanes.

Homeowners, meanwhile, took matters into their own hands.

There were those who went the route of Joe Staggenborg. Staggenborg filled his bathtub with water in the morning when he heard news of the shortage and noticed his water pressure low. Staggenborg was walking his dog on a street in Flagler Village lined with trim trees and salons, and cafes. He is used to the luxuries of his condo on the street but planned to bring down his expectations when it came to flushing the toilet later in the night. "I'll use the water mostly for that," he said.

Dennis Velco, who lives in Wilton Manors, left the bathtub alone and opted to fill up all of the containers he had in his house with water and stick them in the refrigerator, including bowls. "I have about 5 gallons," he said.

Velco runs a startup and works from home. He was sitting in the patio of a Starbucks that he said is normally bustling with people. On Thursday it was nearly empty, as was the inside of Starbucks, which closed all of its locations in the area.

Velco is an Army vet and said that although living without running water for another day would be less than ideal, he has done it before. Mostly, he was concerned about the surrounding community, those businesses who need to stay open, and the effect the shortage was having on them.

Velco pointed across the street to a popular neighborhood bar that was also shuttered. "I bet it must be frustrating for them," he said, speaking about the businesses.

Staff writers Linda Trischitta, David Lyons, Ben Crandell, Phillip Valys, Rod Stafford Hagwood and Catie Wegman contributed to this report.

(c)2019 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)