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Capital Chatter: Don't drink the water - maybe

The city of Salem, with the help of the state, provides lessons in crisis management fro the rest of the state.

I'm feeling queasy as I write this. I don't know whether that's the power of suggestion or the real effects of Salem's tainted water. More about that in a moment.

Astute readers of this column have asked why it is named "Capital Chatter" instead of "Capitol" spelled with an "o."

Excellent question. "Capitol" refers to the statehouse, which is the building that is the seat of government. That, by the way, is why it's redundant (and repetitious!) to say, "Capitol building." Of course, "Capitol" also can be used to describe an adjacent area, such as the Capitol Mall.

"Capital" with an "a" means the city where that seat of government is located. Again, it would be redundant to refer to Salem as Oregon's "capital city."

Anyway, this column primarily covers Oregon state government and politics. Some of that transpires in the Capitol but not all. Much happens in and around other state buildings — and bars, etc. — in the Salem area. Thus, the broader word — capital — fits this column.

That also is why this column, along with the excellent reporting by the Capital Bureau staff, is published online at OregonCapitalInsider.com — again, capital spelled with an "a."

All this is a way of explaining why this week's column focuses on the capital. The city of Salem, with an assist from state government, gave Oregon a series of unfortunate lessons in how not to handle crisis management.

• Lesson No. 1: After the Oregon Health Authority issued a health advisory for Detroit Lake, through which the city's water supply flows, the city issued a press release, "City of Salem Drinking Water Remains Safe to Drink."

That turned out to be wrong, even though city officials didn't know at the time. There were no caveats in the May 23 statement, such as that test results show the water is safe "as of [date]."

With that unilateral declaration of water purity, Salem officials looked silly, or worse, when they had to issue a water warning a few days later. It turned out that algae blooms in Detroit Lake had created in cyanotoxins in the North Santiam River, which is Salem's water supply.

• Lesson No. 2: Salem was slow to inform the public.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the health dangers of cyanotoxins created by algae blooms are not completely understood. Potential effects range from gastroenteritis and allergic responses to life-threatening liver damage in patients exposed to the tainted water through dialysis.

Last Saturday and Sunday, May 26-27, the city learned from its out-of-state water-testing lab that cyanotoxins were in the water. Vulnerable individuals, such as young children or persons with compromised immune systems, could be at risk. Yet city officials did not alert the public until late Tuesday afternoon, after meeting that morning to discuss what to do.

I asked why that meeting wasn't on Monday, even though it was Memorial Day, and why the water alert was not issued that day. It was disturbing and disheartening to hear officials respond that it was difficult to get hold of people on the holiday weekend.

That is scary. It implies the community's disaster-response plan and processes are inadequate. Unless landlines, cellphones, the internet, roads and all other communication networks are down, there is no excuse for being unable to know and reach the key people for any type of disaster response.

Natural- or human-caused disasters — wildfires, disease outbreaks, flooding, the Big One and others — don't take holidays. In fact, one lesson from last year's deadly wildfires in the California wine country is that catastrophes can erupt quickly and when most people are sleeping.

There might have been good reasons for city officials to announce the water advisory on Tuesday. They would have had to weigh the potential chaos of a holiday announcement versus the public benefit. If that were the case, city officials did not say so. Instead, they said the Oregon Health Authority encouraged them to wait. If so, why?

• Lesson No. 3: The warnings malfunctioned.

As the Capital Bureau's Claire Withycombe wrote on OregonCapitalInsider.com, the state Office of Emergency Management sent an incorrect "Civil Emergency" message to telephones and televisions, and it was distributed far beyond the Salem-area water systems that were impacted. As a result, concerned residents in several counties overwhelmed their 911 emergency dispatch centers with calls.

The Office of Emergency Management, which was acting on Salem's behalf, did send a corrected message. (Side note: On my home TV in West Salem, which is Polk County, the message was difficult to read.)

The city's telephone-alert system called people who have registered alerts, but the message was unintelligible. A city press release distributed regionally also was nearly unintelligible, apparently because of its formatting. Fortunately, Marion County posted the press release in a readable format.

The city was trying to direct people to the city website – cityofsalem.net – for more information. But the website crashed. And some residents and businesses, although a minority, lack internet access.

• Lesson No. 4: City officials underestimated residents' concerns.

The alerts were confusing, saying both that Salem's water was safe for most people and warning people and pets not to drink the water. (Pets are at even greater danger, according to the Marion County health officer. I was grateful that West Salem Animal Clinic, where our dog was undergoing a dental procedure on Wednesday while I was at the city's press conference, brought in bottled water to use.)

In any crisis, some confusion is understandable. But city officials were reluctant to call this a crisis or emergency, even though residents and businesses felt it was. Without clean water to make beverages, Starbucks stores in Salem were closed on Wednesdays. McDonald's restaurants did not serve any water-based beverages. Pregnant women and their families worried about the exposure to toxins.

Meanwhile, city officials pointed out that they were not required to test the water for cyanotoxins or to announce the results. Such self-praise might be warranted privately, but it comes across as dismissive of the public's concerns.

Salem has much to correct. The good news is that this was a minor crisis compared with the eventual Big One.

• Lesson No. 5: People step up. On Thursday, Gov. Kate Brown stepped in. She declared an emergency in Marion and Polk counties and ordered the Oregon Military Department to help. Free water stations were being set up in Stayton and Salem. (I'd asked Salem officials on Wednesday whether they had contacted the Oregon National Guard for help and didn't get a clear answer.)

Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum warned of price gouging in water supplies and urged residents to report such instances to the Oregon Department of Justice.

Folks in Keizer and other areas served by well water encouraged Salemites to fill up there. Those helpful businesses and neighbors will be fondly remembered. But I wonder, will they get a break on their bigger water bills?

In any case, other cities have much to learn from Salem's missteps and Keizer's good heart.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Hughesisms.com/Facebook, YouTube.com/c/DickHughes or @DickHughes on Twitter.