Editorial: A failure to communicate



Cedric Grant, director of the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans (S&WB), held a press conference last week to address the city’s latest boil-water alert, which was issued at 10 a.m. on July 24. The alert came a full seven hours after power went out at the Carrollton water plant, potentially allowing for contamination of the East Bank water supply. Grant promised to do better next time and said the city is midway through upgrades at the Carrollton plant.

What Grant didn’t address is his agency’s failure to inform citizens in a timely manner.

The boil-water order was issued on a Friday morning (after residents had their coffee, brushed their teeth, showered, etc.) and continued overnight. There was a run on bottled water at local stores; restaurants and bars had to adjust at their own expense. Not a word came from the city for the rest of the day. The next morning, 24 hours later, the city sent an email saying water samples were still being tested. Then, more silence.

Brad Howard, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, disputed that account, saying, “Sewerage & Water Board and the City utilized multiple platforms to communicate with the public throughout this incident including a major press conference, three press releases (one on Friday and two on Saturday), stakeholder outreach, active engagement on social media (via @NOLAReady), NOLA-311, NOLA Ready text alerts and S&WB’s 24-hour hotline 52-WATER (529-2837).”

Hoping to address frantic inquiries from readers, Gambit spent much of Saturday trying to reach someone — anyone — who could provide answers. The S&WB hotline went unanswered. The city’s 311 information line offered a recording that said the office was closed. The city’s website had no information. The emergency preparedness Twitter account for the city (@NOLAReady) tweeted that the boil-water order was still in effect at 8:43 a.m. It didn’t address the issue again for more than eight hours, when the order was lifted and the city said the water was potable (and had been so). That’s not communication.

Grant earns $210,000 per year — $60,000 more than Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
Grant earns $210,000 per year — $60,000 more than Mayor Mitch Landrieu. In June, Jaquetta White of The New Orleans Advocate reported that Grant also spent $60,000 redecorating his office, including a 70-inch, $30,666 “SMART board” (essentially a high-tech whiteboard). Grant explained the purchases thus: “I think it was a very wise investment in relation to our ability to manage better and bring ourselves into the modern age in relation to how we need to manage and communicate with people.”

Too bad Grant didn’t use that pricey equipment to communicate on July 24 and 25. Tweeting and emailing cost nothing.

By now, New Orleanians are accustomed to boil-water orders. They know New Orleans’ water system is old and prone to failure. Less understandable is the city’s failure to communicate with citizens. Had the water system truly been compromised, lack of communication could have had dire consequences.

“As with any major incident, our teams will work together to fully review all protocols and actions taken to make necessary improvements, particularly in how quickly, frequently and comprehensively we communicate with the public,” Grant said in a statement provided to Gambit. “Public safety is and will remain our top priority."

The simple step of having someone around on the weekend to keep the public informed would be a good start.

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