Scenes from a Boil Order

By Corby Kummer
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Corby Kummer


While the rest of the country is understandably focused on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Boston had its own contaminated-water emergency to cope with today: a ten-foot pipe that delivers water to 2 million people in and around Boston, sprung a "catastrophic" leak at about 10:00 am, and for the first time in recent memory--certainly, for the first time I moved here, in 1981--a "boil order" was issued for Boston and 29 other communities.

As I was driving home along the Jamaicaway, a winding city parkway along the Emerald Necklace designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, an announcer on WBUR said, as if it was just the lead item in the news, that Boston was under a boil order. Immediately I noticed a couple strolling across the Jamaicaway--not something you generally do casually, given that it's four heavily trafficked lanes--carrying plastic gallon jugs of water. I telephoned Mayor Menino's hotline, the city's version of 311, and asked if the news was true. Yes, for Boston. Jamaica Plain, too? Yes, that's a part of Boston. Something I know well, but I was still hoping the order could vary by neighborhood. I bet I wasn't the only hopeful who called.

So I headed for our co-op supermarket, Harvest, to participate in the predictable run on water. It had already caused the longest lines I've seen there, stretching through several aisles. Workers had simply set out shrink-wrapped pallets of a dozen bottles. What was left was mostly lemon and lime flavored Poland Spring soda water; the only unflavored water that remained was two smaller brands, Adirondack and Polar Bear.

As I walked out hauling a dozen bottles, a red city car with flashing red lights, looking like a 1970s sedan, was blaring warnings to boil water. The neighbors I encountered--and in Jamaica Plain, Boston's most diverse and, I objectively say best, neighborhood, everyone treats everyone else as a neighbor--were talking about how long to boil water (at least a minute), whether pasta is the failsafe solution (yes), who had water left, when they heard the news. By 9 pm we had received a recorded message from the city on our land line and I, impressively, had received the same message on my cell phone:

The Massachusetts Water Resource Authority has issued a boil-water order for all households in the city of Boston. Water must be boiling for at least one minute before it is safe to drink. Do not use any tap water for cooking, baby formula, tooth brushing, or food preparation that has not been boiled first or is not bottled. Please be sure to check on elderly or vulnerable neighbors.

I found out where people go to buy water in my neighborhood--the co-op supermarket and CVS, whose bottled-water shelves were nearly empty. When a clerk rolled up with a cart holding several cartons of small bottles of Dasani water, shoppers appeared from nowhere to rush him, including two mothers with strollers. Things were worse in other communities: police had to break up customers at a BJ's, and shoppers were "literally fighting over" water in the aisles of a supermarket in West Roxbury, the next town over, and a market I'd considered going to if JP stores ran out.

The larger problem for restaurants and people in food service is knowing what they can and can't do. The first problem is tea, coffee, and soda, and the answer is: stop serving all of them, unless the soda came in bottles and you've boiled the water first. Starbucks has stopped serving all coffee and tea as of today in all stores in Boston and other affected towns, open only for food and for drinks in bottles. Dunkin Donuts told stores to stop selling coffee unless they could first boil it. In practice that means stores aren't making any hot drinks, according to the man who answered the phone at the busy JP Dunkin. (Update: at 5:15 it had locked the doors.)

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Corby Kummer

Same with cold drinks: the right thing to do is shut down all soda machines, as the exemplary City Feed, whose owner, David Warner, wrote an eloquent rebuttal to my piece on Walmart produce, did by late afternoon last night, taping this sign to its soda machine from the artisan, family-owned soda maker Boylan, which uses (of course) only natural flavor extracts and cane syrup. But across the street, JP Licks, a huge and very popular ice cream shop, had no sign attached to its "bubbler--a regional term I love for faucets where customers can get (non-bubbly) drinking water--and hadn't turned off the supply. It should have posted a sign like City Feed's, or like the one an AP story described at Ula's, a JP bakery-cafe also in JP: "Don't drink me." (Kate Bancroft, the always-smiling, rail-thin co-owner of the extremely popular cafe, was the only local merchant quoted in a sobersided state-officials story, lending credence to my theory that all Boston journalists live in Jamaica Plain.) I also wondered whether the store should be running its frozen-yogurt makers, which I hope contain only pre-made mixes, liquid included, but I assume include large amounts of piped-in water too. And I wondered about the water the ice-cream scoops were being washed in. (Update: At 5:00 there was a plastic cup blocking access to the bubbler, and a piece of cardboard with big block letters saying "NO GO ON THE H2O"; as for the scoops, the water supply had been shut off to the metal tub for the scoops, and it was being regularly drained and filled with cooled boiled water.)

It's confusing for everyone. A locally owned sandwich shop across the street, Sami's, which recently opened its doors after a year of much anticipation, simply closed for the evening, because so many of its wraps include fresh lettuce; the town of Lexington ordered all its restaurants to close. Barbara Lynch, owner of five Boston restaurants including the big and ambitious Menton, which just opened, returned a call this morning and told me that "Everybody started emailing and was crazy" at about 5:00 yesterday--Saturday! the usual time restaurants get into the highest gear of the week. "At five a cop walked into the restaurant and said, 'You can't use any water tonight,'" Gordon Hamersley, owner of one of the city's great restaurants, Hamersley's Bistro, and the one that made the South End the hot restaurant area in Boston, told me very late last night. "I thought she was nuts. I said, 'Are you kidding me?' But it wasn't the end of the world."

The first thing he did, he said, was fill five 50-quart stock pots with water and boil them, then cool the water down by burying the pots "in the ice we couldn't use anyway." That would be enough to wash vegetables for evening service--but not enough for more lettuce than the staff had already washed the day before. Everything washed that day would have to be rewashed in plentiful water that had been first boiled, or thrown out.

Then he drove to the CVS on the corner, where "every restaurant in town was backing out cases of water from the basement" (restaurants that were there because of his pioneering efforts). He bought Coke, ginger ale, and sparkling water, too, to substitute for the soda machine in the bar. "I told the guy who runs are valet service, who's from Sudan, that he couldn't drink any water because it was contaminated, and he said 'Just like my country!'" Ice was the next problem. "We told our customers that the cocktails were going to be a little funky," Hamersley said. "When we told one guy that we couldn't make him a martini, he looked like he was going to pass out."

Hamersley more or less took it in his stride. He quoted his sous-chef, Jason Hanelt, as telling workers to thoroughly prepare every night for the things they know are going to happen, so they can cope with the ones they don't. Lynch sounded as if she and her staff were ready to swing into quick action too. A helpful email came right away, she said, the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, giving guidance that presumably summarized this long document, which the state prepared in 2007 and has also been drawing from. She was able to shift bottled water to serve customers from restaurant to restaurant, Lynch said, and added, admirably, that all of them offered free bottled water last night.

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Corby Kummer

I stopped her when she reported that her new restaurant had its own filtering and pressure system to make soda water--the way most new restaurants, especially conservation-minded ones, build restaurants these days. It's easy to assume, as many restaurants doubtless did last night, that state-of-the-art filtration systems would clear out any health hazards. Some, but in the case of virtually untreated water, not enough.

For green-minded, forward-thinking cooks and business owners, the ironies are clear: environmentalists have been crusading against bottled water for at least two years, and their campaign has traction. But now, just as owners like Lynch are working to free themselves of shipped-in water and relying on on the generally safe municipal supply--sometimes safer than commercial water--everybody needs bottled water, and fast. It's something like the Obama Administration's lukewarm embrace of oil drilling in the name of energy independence, only to see its promise literally explode.

Then there's the case of washing salads and fresh vegetables for food preparation. Lettuce, carrots, fruit, anything being served raw is obviously out of the question: tap water won't clean it safely. All vegetables, including ones to be cooked, need to be washed in water that has first been brought to a rolling boil for one minute.

Hand-washing isn't easy, either. Food-service workers are being told to wash their hands only in warm water that has first been boiled, and use hand sanitizer afterward. Home cooks can wash their hands with tap water and soap and use hand sanitizer afterward. Here's a passage from an FAQ the state Department of Public Health (disclosure: I'm married to the commissioner, John Auerbach) provides, along with other practical and good information tells food-service professionals:

Can tapwater be used by employees of a food establishment for handwashing?
  • The best practice is to use only safe, boiled, bottled or treated water for handwashing.
    • If that is not possible, and handwashing is done with soap and tapwater, you must thoroughly dry your hands with paper towels and then use a hand sanitizer.
      • As a reminder -- food handlers must NOT touch ready to eat foods with bare hands. Instead they should use physical barriers, such as disposable papers, gloves and utensils.

Some guidelines even recommend washing hands in bottled water--a recommendation that made me feel only slightly less guilty for buying several cases of water.

Hamersley somehow assumed the order would be lifted by today. He had bread to make for brunch, and bread requires an enormous amount of water, which also needs to be boiled and cooled first. From the sound of his voice, nobody wanted to go through these kinds of drills day after day. But they'll have to. State officials are saying that the order won't be lifted for several days, and though repairs have been started and pressure is stable, emergency surface-water supplies and conduits mean that the we're in for at least a couple more days.

Days we hope aren't as hot as today! Temperatures of almost 90, and low 80s forecast for tomorrow. Today's message from Governor Deval Patrick and emergency officials is to learn to boil water and cool it--that is, not get into fights in convenience-store aisles for bottled water, and to allow regional and state supplies of bottled water to be delivered first to the elderly and vulnerable populations.

Our refrigerator is now full of stockpiled bottled water, four 32-ounce Rubbermaid "Refill/Reuse" bottles (as many as the CVS had left) filled with boiled and cooled water for washing vegetables and brushing teeth, and several large pots of boiled and cooled water we're transferring to the empties from our stockpiled supplies, lessening the guilt with every refill. No, boiled and cooled water doesn't taste as good as freshly drawn tap water full of invigorating oxygen. But hey--it's tasting better with every hour.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/05/scenes-from-a-boil-order/39790/