Houstonians say the city fumbled sounding the alarm on boil water notice
Girl drinks water from a glass (Shutterstock)

By Alejandro Serrano, The Texas Tribune

HOUSTON — Eboni Davis was at home Sunday night when she got a text saying she wouldn’t have work the following day at Yates High School because of a boil water notice in the nation’s fourth-most-populous city.

“I was like, ‘That’s crazy. How did they even let this happen?’” Davis said Monday afternoon, as she pushed a shopping cart carrying cases of water in the parking lot of an H-E-B grocery store, where there was a limit of two cases per customer. “There should be stuff in place so stuff like this wouldn’t happen, you would think, especially since the city has been established for a long time.”

Millions of residents in this city, vulnerable to natural disasters every hurricane season, shared the same apparent confusion as Davis hours after Mayor Sylvester Turner issued the notice to boil water before consumption, prompted by a power failure at a water treatment center.

Like Davis, many said they learned of the notice only when schools closed for more than 300,000 schoolchildren attending four different districts across the region. Others were furious they had not learned about the situation from their government but instead from friends and neighbors who have kids in school, in some instances hours after the problem had occurred.

By Monday afternoon, coffee shops sold what they could. Grocery store employees tried to restock empty shelves in water aisles. About 15 colonoscopies at a Harris Health System hospital had already been rescheduled “due to longer equipment cleaning times between procedures.”

Meanwhile, parents anxiously waited to hear whether their child would return to school Tuesday after the Thanksgiving break — or not, which was the case for some roughly 195,000 students enrolled in Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district that again canceled classes Tuesday because of the notice.

The Sunday night alert from Houston ISD about canceled Monday classes went out at approximately 9:34 p.m. via text and phone calls, with a subsequent blast five minutes later.

Turner said notification of the notice had been sent to the public at 6:44 p.m. via a news release and social media channels. It was not clear, however, who received the information that early. The city said it would review how it handled communications.

A gas station clerk in the city’s Montrose neighborhood, apparently unaware of the notice, asked a Texas Tribune reporter Monday morning if something had happened to the city’s water because customers kept buying all the bottled water he had stocked.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner speaks to the media about the city-wide water boil notice during a press conference Nov. 28, 2022 in Houston.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner spoke to the media about the citywide boil water notice during a press conference on Monday. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

Other residents, like Adela Coreas, a 60-year-old security officer with two jobs, found the communication method “very irresponsible.”

Coreas said she also learned of the notice Monday morning while listening to a Spanish talk radio show. She stopped at the gas station where she buys coffee every morning, but there was no coffee to buy. Having just finished her overnight job, she headed to her second gig, which she starts at 7 a.m., and made instant coffee.

“The same way they send out alerts about kids who are missing and other matters, they should have sent one that was a priority,” Coreas said, loading cases of water into the bed of her truck at Fiesta supermarket.

Instead, with two pups, she spent $21.90 on water bottles. Her husband spent money on more bottles, too.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, helps pass out water during a water distribution and free flu vaccination event at the Holman Street Baptist Church in Houston on Nov. 28, 2022.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, helps pass out water during a water distribution and free flu vaccination event at the Holman Street Baptist Church in Houston on Nov. 28, 2022. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

A line wraps around the block during a water distribution and free flu vaccination event at the Holman Street Baptist Church in Houston on Nov. 28.

A line wraps around the block during a water distribution and free flu vaccination event at the Holman Street Baptist Church in Houston on Nov. 28. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

First: U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, helps pass out water during a water distribution and free flu vaccination event at the Holman Street Baptist Church in Houston. Last: A line for water wrapped around the block at the church. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, added bottled water to a free flu vaccine drive that was already scheduled to occur in the afternoon. Even before a box truck loaded with 200 cases of water arrived, there was a tiny line of cars forming. Turner was expected to later join the event.

“As a member that represents a sizable part of Houston, we wanted to make sure that as people came that we’d be able to provide them with water,” Jackson Lee told reporters. She said she had reached out to the Environmental Protection Agency, although it was not involved yet.

Deloyd Parker, the executive director of SHAPE Community Center, said he had fielded some calls seeking water. He told his staff of about eight to work from home and double checked a doctor’s appointment was still on.

“I had to make some adjustments,” Parker said. “It was not convenient but life is not convenient.”

Many others found themselves making adjustments as well.

Nurbanu Serikbayeva, a mother of two — one already in school — shared her reaction Sunday night upon learning there would be no class.

“I’m gonna have kids at home, which is something fun on Monday,” she said.

General manager Gabriel Urquizo of the Campesino Coffee House in Houston informs a customer that they aren’t serving iced drinks because of the boil water notice on Nov. 28, 2022.

General manager Gabriel Urquizo of the Campesino Coffee House in Houston informs a customer that they aren’t serving iced drinks because of the boil water notice. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

At Campesino Coffee House, general manager Gabriel Urquizo helped fill orders, which were all in to-go cups. They sold pastries but not their usual food. They served cold drinks, but without ice and likely until the refrigerated pitchers of cold brew, which they typically dilute with filtered water, ran out.

“No ice,” Urquizo, 47, told a customer who wanted an iced latte. “It’s so weird.”

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/11/28/houston-boil-water-notice-communication/.

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