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Weatherford restaurants told they can reopen, but they must boil water

WEATHERFORD -- Water is expected to be restored by 11 p.m. Tuesday at most homes in Weatherford, and restaurants were told they could reopen if they had enough pressure to flush toilets, operate dishwashers and comply with health and safety codes.

But city officials also announced that all water must be boiled for at least two minutes to make it suitable for human consumption.

Also, hotels and motels were told that they could reopen, but that they could not operate their ice machines.

The Weatherford Regional Medical Center and the Parker County Jail were expected to be the first places to receive water on Tuesday, giving their residents some much-needed relief on a day when the mercury again rose to triple digits.

On Monday, Weatherford's water supply was essentially cut off when a crucial water line was broken, shutting down restaurants, day cares, and doctors offices, among other things.

"I would like to apologize to our citizens for the situation we found ourselves in," Mayor Dennis Hooks said Tuesday morning at a news conference at a water staging area. "This was unforeseen by anybody. With that said, we are working 24 hours a day to get this situation under hand. ... It looks like the water is going to come back on sometime this afternoon for primary use."

By Tuesday morning, officials said the pipe was temporarily repaired and officials were pressurizing the system in phases.

Assistant City Manger Robert Hanna said that officials hoped that the entire city would have water by noon Wednesday. He stressed, however, that residents must use water for essential purposes only and boil any water they plan to consume until further notice, which will likely be Thursday or Friday.

"If you have water this afternoon, I would suggest you use it for flushing the toilets and bathing," he said. "If you are going to consume it, make sure you boil it. ... Don't bathe the dog, don't wash the car, don't water the lawn. It's just essential use only."

Hanna said the city is working with the health department to try and determine when restaurants might be able to reopen, which might be sometime tomorrow.

Weatherford is under Stage 5 emergency, which means all non-essential uses are prohibited until further notice. That includes:

■ Outside use of water, irrigation, landscaping, recreation, car washes

■ Commercial car or truck washes

■ Use of fire hydrants for construction

Violators are subject to a misdemeanor charge, which is punishable by up to $500 or possible loss of water service.

Hanna stressed that, once the system is back up and running, the city will be in a Stage 3 conservation mode, which means there will continue to be restrictions on outdoor watering, among other things.

But officials also warned that it could be at least two more days, possibly more, before the system is permanently fixed. Temperatures topped 100 degrees for a second straight day Tuesday and are expected to be in the triple digits for the rest of the week, the National Weather Service reported.

"We're going to be in conservation mode until it is permanently fixed," City Manager Jerry Blaisdell said Monday. "Once the temporary fix is in place, it is expected to take between two and four days for the breakage to be permanently fixed."

State law requires city officials to notify people that they must boil water that comes back into the system before they can use it.

The boiling kills harmful bacteria and other microbes in water used to drink, cook and make ice.

"The water should be brought to vigorous, rolling boil and then boiled for two minutes," according to a news release from the city.

"The city," according to the release, "will collect water samples and will notify residents when it is no longer necessary to boil the water and it is safe for consumption."

County Judge Mark Riley has declared Parker County to be in a state of disaster, but for how long remains to be seen.

'Freak accident'

Weatherford's water supply was essentially cut off Monday when a crucial water pipe broke. Officials said a high-service pump shifted inside the Weatherford Lake Water Treatment Facility.

The shift snapped an "artery" on the 15-year-old system that supplies water to about 13,000 houses -- about 30,000 residents -- in Weatherford and neighboring Hudson Oaks. The pipe that broke supplies treated water to elevated storage tanks throughout the city.

Crews have been working around the clock to repair the system, officials said.

Officials called in a dive team about 3 a.m. Monday to try to weld a 2-inch split in the pipe but were unsuccessful. Later, officials notified Weatherford Regional Medical Center, nursing homes, the school district and county offices that water was in short supply.

"Around midnight, we began to recognize some abnormalities within the system," Blaisdell said. "It was obvious that there was going to be a critical failure."

Officials in Weatherford and Hudson Oaks declared water emergencies. Hudson Oaks asked residents to halt nonessential use until the system is repaired.

Charles Marshall, public works team leader for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, called the pump shift and subsequent pipe break a freak accident, explaining that "they all shake" and breaks "happen from time to time."

He said no problems were noted when the treatment facility was last inspected in November 2008. He said the pipe that broke was an "artery that feeds into many lines."

"If you cut a vein, you'll still be able to move on and keep going," he said. "But if you cut an artery, it's a different story."

Other workers, assisted by an army of volunteers, continue to hand out bottled water to residents throughout the city.

Residents said they hoped that it would be enough to get them through the hottest time of the year, on a day when their faucets ran dry.

"It's amazing," said Martha Buckner, who was getting water as temperatures soared to 103 degrees. "I can't believe this. It's too hot for us not to have water right now. ... I hope it is over soon."

Residents on Monday coped as best as they could. Some filled bathtubs with water and tried to conserve; others high-tailed it out of town.

"I'm headed to the river," quipped Jason Ratliff, a cook at the Weatherford Downtown Cafe, which closed at 9:30 a.m. Monday.

Closed businesses

By lunchtime Monday, Weatherford was a ghost town. "Closed" signs were posted at restaurants, splash parks and car washes. Dentists and doctors had to reschedule patients. Day-care centers turned away parents and children.

Without running water "you can't have things like toilets, and it's hard to do things like washing hands and plates," said Sally Murphy, director of Little Tyke Creative Child Care in Weatherford. "It has caused a great deal of inconvenience to parents."

Calli Clarkson, a receptionist at Wright Family Dentistry, said patients understood when she informed them that their appointments would be changed.

"But it makes for a slow day," Clarkson said.

An Aledo family passing through town found out firsthand how difficult it was to find lunch.

"Taco Casa and KFC were closed," said Christine Victry, who was with her two children. "They had signs on their door. We ended up at a Braum's."

Elizabeth Hall said she decided to beat the heat Monday by taking her three kids to the Splash Pad at the city's Love Street Park. Only, there was no water to splash in, she said.

"We saw it on the news, but I didn't think much about it until we got here," she said. "You don't realize how much it affects you until something like this happens."

And while most commercial businesses were closed or struggling Monday, Sandy Lawrence, who owns the Pure Water Station on Main Street, was seeing lots of new faces. As of about 2 p.m., Lawrence said, she had sold almost 500 gallons of water, more than she usually sells by that time of day.

"I've had somebody come from one of the retail stores and buy a 5-gallon bottle just so they could flush their toilets," Lawrence said.

City tries to cope

The dwindling water supply created unique headaches for city officials who had to decide how to get water to residents, including those behind bars.

Officials initially proposed transferring inmates in the Parker County Jail to a Waco facility but instead are using tanker trucks to supply potable water. Tanker trucks are also being used to supply water to Weatherford Regional Medical Center. And bottled water was handed out throughout the city, including at most fire stations.

Portable toilets were stationed outside City Hall.

In the event of a fire, officials said, Weatherford's tanker trunks are full and surrounding cities will respond if needed. Fort Worth is also offering a hydrant on the far west side.

Several other nearby communities are also doing what they can to help. The Brock school district offered Weatherford's volleyball team the use of its gym for twice-a-day practices, which began Monday.

Aledo offered the city a water well.

"It is low-producing, but we said, 'This is what we have to offer,'" Aledo Mayor Kit Marshall said. "It's not a whole lot, but it's something."

At the fire station Monday evening, residents seemed most concerned about their children, pets and the elderly.

Debbie Marbut traveled from Mineral Wells to check on her 80-year-old parents, who live in an assisted-living facility. When she heard that the fire station was handing out water, she wasted no time.

"Dad has Parkinson's, and she is a diabetic," Marbut said. "The water situation brought me here."

Staff writers Domingo Ramirez Jr. and Jay Board contributed to this report.

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