For the past two days, Oregon's state capital has been without safe drinking water, forcing people to drive to neighboring cities to fill water canisters and purchase bottles for as much as $47 a case at gas station convenience stores.
An alarm first went out on Tuesday, when Salem city officials issued a "do not drink" tap water advisory to city residents. Now Salem officials are receiving criticism for waiting four days to alert the city to the water crisis.
An outside lab confirmed on Saturday that an algae bloom had added cyanotoxins—which can cause vomiting, stomach upset, diarrhea, and liver and kidney damage—to Detroit Reservoir, the city's water supply, the Statesman Journal first reported. An alert did not go out to Salem residents until Tuesday afternoon.
Salem's emergency preparedness manager, Greg Walsh, explained during a Wednesday press conference that the delayed advisory was based on advice from the Oregon Health Authority.
"They advised us," Walsh said, "they said, 'Hey, we have a couple days. Let's not jump the gun. Let's make sure we have all the results that we need to make an informed and appropriate decision on this.'"
That's within state guidelines. But the way local and state officials alerted people caused panic—and raises questions about whether automated alerts made matters worse.
A confusing default notification was sent in error on Tuesday evening to a large number of Oregon cell phones.
"Civil Emergency in this area until 11:28 pm," the push notification read. "Prepare for Action."
The Marion County Sheriff's Office says a less-alarming version of that message was meant only for Salem residents.
"There were additional details that were supposed to go out," a spokesman for OEM, Cory Grogan, told KATU, "but for some reason, it went to the default message instead."
OEM spokesperson Paula Fasano Negele says "there's no way to know how many phones got the wireless emergency alert because wireless air waves don't stop at county lines." She adds that the alert was meant for residents in Marion, Linn and Polk counties, but that it's highly likely phones in other counties got the notification as well. (Residents in Benton and Deschutes Counties also report receiving the message.)
That sparked widespread confusion—then panic. Some people began planning retreats to nuclear war bunkers, while others joked about an impending apocalypse.
KATU reporter Joe Douglass tweeted yesterday that some black market bottles were being sold online for upwards of $25.
Residents are furious at how the city handled the problem.
Allyson Wise, who is eight-months pregnant, told the Statesman Journal, "It frustrates me that city officials appeared to know about the elevated toxin levels for a number of days, but only chose to alert people on the evening of the 29th."
Other residents became alarmed after cases of bottled water quickly sold out at local stores.
"It's all starting to hit me about the Salem water crisis," one Salem resident, Tabi Gonzales, tweeted on Tuesday night. "My family has no water. All sold out. What am I supposed to feed my dogs? Fucking shit."
Gonzales tells WW, "When we were notified of the contaminated water everyone started to go to supermarkets to try to locate bottled water to the point where people were literally driving to different cities just to get safe water."
"We don't know when this will be resolved," she adds. But "stores are restocking on bottled water."
Bottled water quantities remain scarce. And the situation, OPB first reported, has prompted Gov. Kate Brown to declare Salem in a state of emergency. Brown has called on the Oregon National Guard to tow in large, portable water holding tanks to ease the bottled water shortage.
In a statement today, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum also issued a consumer alert against price gouging.
"Our state's price gouging law protects people impacted by an emergency from illegal price gouging on food, shelter, bottled water, fuel and other items necessary for the health, safety and welfare of Oregonians," Rosenblum said. (Disclosure: Rosenblum is married to Richard Meeker, the co-owner of WW's parent company.)
"We have already received consumer complaints from Oregonians who believe they have been the victim of price gouging in the last 48 hours," she added. "Anybody else who believes they have been the victim of price gouging, or who has information regarding potential price gouging, should immediately file a complaint or call the Attorney General's Consumer Hotline at 1-877-877-9392."
Children, elderly, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems are still advised to avoid tap water. Residents are also advised not to give pets tap water, and not to boil water—as that could just increase toxin levels. Salem officials today announced that recent water samples still show contamination, and that the "do not drink" advisory will remain in effect until further notice.