Water outage report: City botched communications, mayor exerted “extreme” pressure on staff members

Photos courtesy of city of Asheville

by John Boyle and Andrew R. Jones, avlwatchdog.org

This is a developing story and will be updated.

The City of Asheville has released its long-awaited Independent Review Committee report on the devastating holiday season water outage, and it highlights the city’s ineptness in what it called “murky” communications, providing accurate information and even identifying who was actually in charge.

The report also said Mayor Esther Manheimer, according to city employees, exerted “significant,” “major” and “extreme” pressure on staff members regarding estimated timelines for restored water services.

“These people told the report’s authors ‘that if a public message was not immediately developed giving an estimate, the strong insinuation from the Mayor was that the jobs of the people stating objections were on the line,’” the report states. “The authors asked Manheimer about this and she said she did put pressure on staff ‘to change their assessment and put out a public message giving an estimate on the restoration of service.’

“She told the authors ‘that the public demanded a timeframe,’” the report states.

That “pushed” Water Resources Director David Melton to say water would be restored within 24-48 hours, according to the report.

The outage spanned 11 days, from Dec. 24, 2022 through Jan. 4, 2023, left tens of thousands of customers without water and shut down businesses during the crucial holiday season.

“City leaders and elected officials were consistently unable to identify who was in charge,” the report states, noting that two people identified themselves as the incident commander. “One member in City Leadership described the situation as ‘leading by consensus.’”

Another finding in the report is an “Inconsistent or complete lack of training for elected officials, city management, and operational staff surrounding emergency management/response.”

It further noted that the only person the Emergency Response subcommittee spoke with who “was adamant” that Melton was the incident commander was now-retired Asheville Fire Chief Scott Burnette.

“A common response received was leading ‘within silos.’”

One infamous misstep during the crisis was the city’s inability to say how many water customers were affected.

“In an effort to give SOME estimate of the number of people affected, inaccurate information was provided to the public,” the report states. “The ‘About 38,000 people are affected’ was not based on actual outage data; it is the number of people signed up to receive AVL Alerts.”

Further, the report found the communications department’s “ability to tell leaders that it was okay to say, ‘I don’t know’ instead of giving a false number was diminished because of the “producer” role.

“We do not find this misinformation to have been harmful to the public but it overestimated the impacts of the event,” the report states. “If anything, it helped relay how serious the situation was becoming. However, that number should never have been given and should not be used today.”

The report said elected officials did not receive timely updates, and those officials who did handle “themselves properly during the crisis,” according to proper crisis communications procedures, “were the ones essentially left out of the loop.”

“To her credit, the City Manager noted that this is one area where she felt she could’ve done better, both in informing all equally and preventing those with the information from exerting outsized influence,” the report states, referring to City Manager Debra Campbell.

“In the case of this event, most elected officials found out about the severity of the event from their friends and constituents. In some cases, their being out of town for the holidays added to their lack of direct information.”

The report states all levels of city personnel “identified the response to this crisis as ‘needing Improvement,’ citing an absence of training.

“Elected officials inserted themselves into operational areas which were the responsibility of departmental staff,” the report states. “This led to an emergency response which was described as ‘murky,’ ‘inappropriate,’ ‘unwieldy’ and “cumbersome.’”

The city’s communications efforts received criticism, as it did during the outage. Residents expressed outrage at the city’s inability to clearly explain what had happened and give residents an accurate estimate of when water would be restored. One resident suggested in comments to an Asheville Watchdog story that the city’s leaders asking for more patience could “eat glass.”

City Council formed the Independent Review Committee in January after the water outage.

Yet the city never issued a definitive count of how many customers were affected. The city caught considerable heat for inaccurate and spotty communications during the outage, and for not providing a timeline or other information in a timely manner.

The outage was precipitated by a severe three-day cold event. Throughout the system, 27 city-owned water lines broke, and when the city turned to its Mills River water plant to produce water, workers found it frozen.

Engineering experts say infrastructure issues, a lack of preparation and a poor response to the crisis played key roles in the debacle. The Water Department’s “tabletop” emergency exercise in early December involved a tropical storm deluge scenario, not a cold weather event.

The IRC report makes more than 20 “Immediate Recommendations,” including a reevaluation of the “overall role of the Engineering Division within the Water Resources Department,” with consideration of adding a production engineer position. “The goal should be to hire or groom a knowledgeable, experienced Engineer who is engaged in the day-to-day operations and decision-making of the water utility.”

The Water Resources Department Director, David Melton, is not a licensed engineer.

Other recommendations include considering the creation of a “Water Utility Advisory Panel,” which would “be of assistance to the City Manager, City Council and the Mayor in their oversight responsibilities related to the (water department).”

“Done correctly, such a board could be a tremendous resource for the WRD Leadership, City leadership, community, and the region as a whole,” the report states.

Under “communications,” the committee recommends developing an updated crisis communications plan, and replacing the “operational approach” to public communications with a system where “communication professionals are elevated in importance and can have not just influence, but direct oversight of the crisis communications planning and implementation.” The committee also recommends hiring a “Public Information Officer dedicated to the Water Resources Department.”

Other recommendations are more technical, and they include:

  • Implement a regular large-diameter distribution system valve assessment and operation program.
  • Enable Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) control of the control valve for full range of flow.
  • Enable Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) control of other key distribution system control valves that may be identified in the future.

Under “Short-Term & Long-Term Recommendations,” the committee recommends the city should:

  • Evaluate the existing pumps at the East Asheville Booster Pump Station, by inspection and with pump tests, for the purpose of producing a station preliminary engineering report, detailing what will be needed to refurbish the station to “return it to useful service for system redundancy during emergency events and future demand.”
  • Create a function, tool or program within the water department’s SCADA Historian that derives “Total Daily Demand” at the end of each midnight-to-midnight period. This will allow WRD staff to compare each day’s total supply input versus total demand.
  • Conduct an overall assessment of how well the water department has managed the ongoing challenge of knowledge retention. Identify knowledge gaps and develop strategies to address them as quickly as possible.
  • At least semi-annually, plan and conduct table-top exercises to enhance the neffectiveness of the department’s and the community’s overall emergency response capabilities.
  • Accelerate the installation of additional district or zone meters in the distribution system.

While the city blamed severe cold over Christmas — the low temperature hit 2 degrees on Dec. 23, zero on Dec. 24, and 12 degrees the next two nights — the cold snap was predicted days in advance and outside engineering experts have said it should not have been catastrophic.

Melton initially said about a dozen pipes broke, but it turned out 27 pipes ruptured, with the average age of broken lines being 45 years. Most of those pipes were cast iron, which becomes brittle as it ages.

While Melton and Manheimer described the cold snap as “unprecedented,” Asheville has had at least seven cold waves of equal or colder temperatures in the last 50 years, according to a former scientist with the National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville.

Since Jan. 1, 1999, Asheville Regional Airport, the official weather station for Asheville, has recorded 33 days with a low temperature of below 10 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. That includes a low of minus 1 degree in January 2014.

The Mills River water plant, actually located in northern Henderson County, is about five miles from the airport.

The nearby city of Hendersonville water plant, which serves that city and northern Henderson County, did not have significant outages.

Melton was hired in February 2016 as assistant director of the Water Resources Department and promoted to director in November 2018. Melton earns $135,688 annually, plus a $3,600 annual car allowance.

The city required IRC members to sign “non-disclosure agreements,” or NDAs. Previously, City Attorney Brad Branham said the committee was “specifically designed to operate as an analytical task force.”

“As is commonly the case with such bodies, it does not serve an advisory or other statutory purpose for the City Council,” Branham said. “Therefore, it is not a public body. Moreover, the function of the IRC requires a greater degree of confidentiality during their review process.”

State law provisions exclude making public information that deals with sensitive public infrastructure from public records,” Branham said.

“Therefore, documents and information about the city’s water system cannot be shared publicly due to security concerns,” Branham said earlier this year. “However, it is imperative that the IRC has access to these materials in order to effectively and conclusively accomplish their task. The only way to balance these concerns is to maintain a confidential environment for this group to do its work. In the end, all reports and findings will be made public and presented in an open meeting.”

The IRC members are:

  • Water subject matter experts: Ted Tyree, engineer at the Knoxville Utilities Board; Michael Holcombe, former director of the Asheville Water Resources Department; John McLaughlin, Director of internal development at Highfill Infrastructure Engineering.
  • Communication subject matter experts Mike McGill — owner of a public relations firm that specializes in water issues.
  • Rob Brisley — U.S. Customs/Border Protection Incident Management Branch Team; Previously employed at N.C.
  • Department of Public Safety as incident management team specialist; Disaster Response Specialist Contractor.
  • Emergency management subject matter expert: Dennis Fagnant.
  • Residential water customers: Michele Ashley, Kim “Dirt” Murphy.
  • Business water customer: Carolyn Roy, owner of Biscuit Head restaurants.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at jboyle@avlwatchdog.org. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.


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8 thoughts on “Water outage report: City botched communications, mayor exerted “extreme” pressure on staff members

  1. Voirdire

    hey, it was xmas eve… it’s not that cold.. it’s been colder and all was fine. And the mayor… she would never tell it anything but how it exactly happened.

  2. Grant

    I happen to have worked on a Buncombe County Government Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP). I was also in the military and in my Master of Project Management program we studied complex lessons learned reports… like for the space shuttle disasters. I actually look at reports like the 9/11 commission report.

    In no way shape or form that the Indecent Review Committee giving the city manager an OK for the communications around Christmas tell use if the process of onboarding Debra has worked out. She was just announced as the new city manager in 2018 after Gary Jackson was asked to resign.

    I happen to have asked for the COA COOP / Emergency Management plan in 2021 or 2022. Then, they selected a consultant to work on a new COA COOP / Emergency Management plan. I completed the associated public survey and pointed out the death and disability from narcotics like Illegally Manufactured Fentanyl (IMF) is an emergency.

    There might have been some actual casualties tied to the Christmas water outages. However, we know for sure there are have been close to 1000 deaths associated with IMF that are mostly about Asheville versus the rest of the county.

    It’s come up recently that Debra Campbell’s contract is up December 2. During the last election I was the person who pointed out municipal executives have an average six year tenure. The county manager, Avril Pinder, has no contract I found out recently. NC county managers apparently worked out legislation a long time ago where they get open ended employment.

    And Avril was just announced versus the people of Buncombe getting a chance to meet several candidates as part of an open government recruitment process. So, both Debra and Avril could have picked emergency management and the pillars of public safety and public health from Day 1. The rest of the water incident report shows a massive transformation program is needed.

    Debra was welcome to have had the insight to look into infrastructure issue as soon as she started with COA. But what we do know is that IMF trafficking was blasting off just before she came on board and the resultant public safety and public health emergency there is, well, whatever.

    Our municipal issues should not be assessed with ‘whatever’ criteria or with a sightless lens.

  3. kw

    It wasn’t an extreme weather event. That’s a lie. We’ve had many such arctic blasts in the 50 years I’ve lived in the area. We’re lucky there wasn’t a big snow just before or after the freeze. Or another ‘unexpected’ emergency on top of the freeze that real leaders should expect: snapped power lines, condos on fire, pandemic panic, food shortages, terrorist attack, tainted meat at Ingle’s…

  4. Bright

    Bottom line is, will Asheville have to endure the embarrassing lack of competence again if it gets cold this year? Let’s just live on the hope that the temperature doesn’t get lower than 32°.

  5. indy499

    When you recommendation is to create an advisory panel, obviously you aren’t serious. Heads should roll and the org should be restructured.

  6. Richard B

    “Elected officials inserted themselves into operational areas that were the responsibility of Department staff “.
    People in charge who do this – who don’t know much about management at all and with no knowledge of the issues at hand – should not be in charge of anything. They are incompetent dolts who have few accomplishments.

  7. Terry Wheeler

    Once again, Ashevilles problems are not unique to Asheville!

    Detroit… Jackson, MS… Asheville NC water problems, bridges falling down killing people… can all be traced down to a single problem and a typical solution!

    The problem is tears of diverting funds to any number of special projects designed to “buy” votes and maintain power, until the infrastructure starts to collapse… it’s like playing Musical Chairs!

    The solution is to obfuscate , deflect, kick the can down the road, until outraged citizens are lulled back into a false sense of security and hopes of free stuff which can never be delivered!

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