After three months of interviews with Asheville city staff, elected officials and water customers, many tours of water facilities and more than 90 requests for information, the Independent Review Committee presented its after-action report on the city’s winter water outage during the June 13 meeting of Asheville City Council.
The nine-member committee was established in January to analyze the cause of the outage, which started Dec. 24 and lasted for some customers through Jan. 4, as well as the city’s communications and emergency response. Chief among the committee’s findings, published June 9, was that the scope of the event was “largely avoidable and preventable.”
“We are committed to taking a much, much deeper dive of the study, understanding, essentially, strengths and weaknesses,” said City Manager Debra Campbell. “And unfortunately — and apparently — there were a couple of weaknesses in our system.”
Closed valves, high demand
Committee member and engineer Ted Tyree explained that the cold weather that moved into Western North Carolina Dec. 23 wasn’t unprecedented. But it was coupled with “record high” water consumption, which led to 27 main waterline breaks throughout Asheville’s service area.
“We are fairly certain that [the breaks happened] because homeowners let their pipe or let their faucets drip or run to try to prevent them from freezing,” Tyree said. “That worked for a lot of people; for some, it didn’t. So, they had frozen pipes, which resulted in broken pipes and leakage on property.”
Tyree said the Mills River treatment plant in South Asheville, one of three plants operating in the city, was taken offline Dec. 24 due to “cold-induced treatment issues.” Residents in the south and west of the system started to lose water pressure shortly thereafter. “Thousands of customers were affected. We still don’t know exactly how many,” he explained.
Mills River came back online on Dec. 28, and service began to return for much of South Asheville. But many western areas remained without water until Jan. 2, when city staff discovered a closed 24-inch valve in the River Arts District.
After staffers opened the valve, water began filling storage tanks at Candler Knob, which serves the western part of the system, at a much faster rate, allowing service to be restored. Tyree said that the city had suspected there was a closed valve in the RAD since 2019, but no action had been taken to resolve the issue. City staff had been informed of a “high probability” of a closed valve located on a main waterline Jan. 10, 2022, nearly a year before the outage.
“We asked [city] staff about that. They said, ‘Yes, we did get the presentation. We looked for a closed valve and we simply couldn’t find it,’” Tyree said.
The water committee also found that another nearly closed 24-inch valve in the southern part of the system — the detailed location of which is redacted from the final report — had also contributed to the outage. Tyree said that had the city addressed the two valves earlier, the outage would have been more manageable.
Committee member and engineering consultant Mike McGill said that the water outage’s timing over Christmas influenced how the city chose to communicate its severity.
“We found that there was a hope, a belief, that if the water breaks … were repaired, then this situation would not elevate to something of a serious nature like we saw. And that belief informed the communications,” he said.
McGill added that the city took an “operational approach” to informing the public about the outage, which prioritized repairing the issues over communicating the circumstances. “The idea is, if you focus on responding to the crisis — the physical response to the crisis — then you don’t need to potentially panic the public,” he explained.
That strategy backfired after initial attempts to resolve the system’s issues failed. McGill pointed to a direct order and “job-threatening pressure” from Mayor Esther Manheimer for the water department to say on Dec. 27 that service would be restored within 24-48 hours. The command came despite stated concerns from water department staff that meeting such a time frame would be “highly unlikely.”
The committee found the promise of service restoration to be the city’s most egregious communications misstep. McGill said the claim may have left some residents underprepared to meet their water needs.
Committee members also found that Asheville lacked a crisis communications plan, structure and process, which would have included a “regular, consistent stream of communications.” The city’s institutional “distrust of the news media” also led to communications gaps and unanswered questions. McGill called the city’s approach to using press conferences “not really how you inform the public during a crisis,” and he noted that promises to follow up on unanswered questions were unfulfilled.
The city also notified water customers that about 30,000 people were without service through the AVL Alerts system. McGill said that estimate was based not on any information about the water system but instead on the number of people enrolled in AVL Alerts. (The actual number of those experiencing an outage, he added, was likely lower.)
In examining the role of City Manager Campbell and her involvement in communications, McGill said, the committee found that “contrary to [press] coverage, the city manager performed exactly as she should during this process.” Although McGill did not name specific outlets, Asheville Watchdog columnist John Boyle wrote a widely shared opinion piece Jan. 16 that questioned Campbell’s approach to the crisis.
“The city manager is not a spokesperson during a crisis,” said McGill. “They are a facilitator to make sure the response is going well within the city.”
The committee presented 27 recommendations for the city, including the development of an updated crisis communications plan, the creation of a Water Utility Advisory Panel and employing the National Incident Management System during future crisis events.
Manheimer noted that there was already support among Council members to implement those recommendations.
“I want to caution the community: It’s not going to happen overnight. There’s a lot in this report. And there’s a lot of budgetary considerations that need to be made,” added Campbell. “But we are committed.”