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Water, water everywhere ... and not a drop to drink.

On July 11, 1993, citizens of Des Moines, Iowa awoke to find that they were in the wake of the worst natural disaster in the history of the city -- a record flood that endangered their property and lives, and no water to use for anything -- including human consumption, showers, flushing stools, processing food or operating equipment.

Loss of public water supply

At 3:02 a.m., the Des Moines water production manager stood ankle deep in the flooded plant control room, surrounded by 4,160 volts of electricity. The plant's general manager, L.D. McMullen, said, "get out of the plant and cut the power before you leave." The manager flipped the main breaker, stopping the city's water supply and plunging Des Moines into the national spotlight. Never in U.S. history had a city so large been without water.

I was awakened at 5:00 a.m. that Sunday by a telephone call from the county manager's office, informing me that levees had broken, the water plant was shut down and we were facing a major crisis for 250,000 to 300,000 people in the metro area of the City of Des Moines. Eventually, some 3,000 residents of Des Moines, Polk County and the surrounding area were evacuated from their homes because of the flood emergency. Most were able to find a temporary residence with relatives or friends.

Creating a plan

Our first priority was to get safe, potable water to residents in the affected areas. We set up a command headquarters at our offices, which are located north of the city. Although we had no access to water, we were in no danger of flooding conditions. Through the news media and by contacting the Iowa Motor Truck Association, we started getting response for trucks to haul water from surrounding communities that had safe drinking water.

All management personnel for the county, city, the National Guard and Red Cross were activated on that Sunday morning. Assignments were issued to various agencies. The Central Iowa Inspections Environmental Health Division had many responsibilities. We made sure the tanks transporting water were sanitized and capable of hauling safe potable water. Polyethylene tanks of 1,000 to 1,500 gallon size were acquired and installed as distribution centers at parking lots of large grocery stores and schools, to let the general public fill containers with safe water for human consumption.

Within eight hours of the time the first call came in, we had 17 distribution sites in operation.

Protecting the water sites

Personnel were assigned 24 hours a day to each site, along with the National Guard, to protect the water and maintain security at the distribution sites. Although the water was tested for residual chlorine, residents were advised to boil water for two minutes before drinking, cooking, or brushing teeth. Bottled water companies and breweries from several states sent plastic containers, beer cans and bottles filled with water to most distribution sites. This sealed water was drinkable without boiling, and its nitrate content was known to be safe for mixing baby formulas.

Hospital water supply

Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Units (ROWPUs), priced at $780,000 each, were flown in by enormous C5A transport planes. National Guard units from Alabama and other states accompanied the ROWPUs with orders to supply water for Des Moines' seven hospitals.

ROWPUs were placed on both sides of the Des Moines River between University and Grand Avenues. Several were placed at hospitals. Each unit was capable of drawing 100 gallons of water per minute from the Des Moines River. The raw river water was strained, filtered several times, chlorinated and deposited into a 50,000 gallon bladder, the shape of a gigantic water bed mattress. The purified water was then pumped into tankers and transported to the hospitals. Mercy Hospital had a direct water line from the fiver through a ROWPU to a fire hydrant to the hospital's plumbing system.

Physicians and dentists affected

Most primary care physicians were able to continue seeing patients, but at a reduced schedule during the emergency. For the most part, physicians practicing surgical specialties utilized hospital emergency departments, where sterile conditions could be more easily maintained. Most dentists were not able to continue practice due to lack of drinkable water for operating suction tips and other mechanical dental instruments. Dental emergencies were seen in hospitals or at West Des Moines dental offices, where water was available. A few dentists found temporary office space with dentists outside the Des Moines area who were on vacation at the time of the crisis.

Portable toilets

Another priority was to get portable toilets to each water distribution site and to command headquarters and other vital and essential operations. It was said that Des Moines could be called "KYBO City," because one out of 100 KYBOs (a brand of portable toilet) in the world was located here.


A state of emergency existed in the city of Des Moines, and the mayor issued a proclamation ordering all non-essential businesses to cease operation. The flooding of seven substations resulted in the loss of electric power for much of downtown Des Moines. Portable generators were brought in by the National Guard, Midwest Power and other companies. Altogether, about one-third of the normal power was available for operating affected hospitals, homes and businesses essential to the flood control effort.

Animal and mosquito control

Wild animals were also flooded from their normal habitats. However, no increase in bite injuries from rabies-carrying species was noted. A slight increase in rat bites was reported, but no snake bites were recorded. An increased number of dead raccoons and opossums were seen in the streets.

The encephalitis surveillance system, consisting of sentinel chickens and mosquito light traps, did not reveal any serological or virus isolation evidence of the presence of encephalitis viruses at the time. Mosquito larviciding of water standing after the flood receded, and adulticiding in neighborhoods where complaints are registered, were conducted throughout the county. Tetanus-diptheria boosters were administered to some 20,000 flood victims and volunteers by private physicians, hospital emergency departments and neighborhood clinics, as well as by the Polk County Health Department.

Keeping the public informed

We started a daily routine of briefings, including key agencies such as the city manager's office, county officials, the National Guard, the Environmental Health division, and Red Cross. The briefings were conducted twice daily, at 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., followed by a press conference at 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. This, as it turned out, was the best thing we could have done to keep the general public informed as to the situation at any given moment. Also, it was the best means of letting food establishments know what we would recommend for them to operate safely, depending on their situation.

In addition to the briefings and press conferences, I held a daily staff meeting with all the environmental health specialists to plan what needed to be checked each day. We checked approximately 1,500 food service establishments the first week. Cooperation from the public was excellent because they were kept informed. All agencies worked together with absolutely no territorial restrictions.

We attended daily meetings at 2:00 p.m. with Christopher Atchison, director of the State Health Department. These meetings also included the expertise of Dr. Frank Young, Assistant Surgeon General of the United States; Rear Admiral Pierson of the Uniformed Services; Dr. Walter Dawgle, acting director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Ronald C. Biergen, Emergency Response Coordinator for the CDC; and Kent Gray and Dr. Scott Lilleridge from the CDC. The information we gained by brainstorming with this group was very productive in our recovery from this crisis.

National news media

We were interviewed by every major television network, NBC's Today program, CNN and various other stations, along with all local TV and radio stations. We did not realize the scope of our situation for some time after the crisis hit us. All businesses in the downtown area, including six major hotels, were completely shutdown. A large number of hotel rooms had toilets that had been used by patrons and could not be flushed for 12 days. The loss of revenue was astronomical.

Restoration of the water supply

Water works plant manager McMullen worked closely with all the agencies to keep us informed of the progress to get water reconnected for fire protection and general use, and finally for the moratorium to be lifted, enabling businesses to start a gradual recovery plan toward normal operation.

On the twelfth day, water became available for flushing stools and for bathing. Water was still a long way from being safe to drink, but the nightmare of no water at all was over. We met with the hotels' management and agreed to let them open on minimum conditions, once their cooling towers were filled and they had received approval from the Fire Marshall's office that fire protection was adequate. Other requirements were that all food service was to operate with safe, potable water, and food must be served with single service items only -- i.e., paper plates. They were to issue each newly registered guest a container of safe potable water for drinking and brushing teeth. Also, a sign stating "Don't drink the water" from the tap was to be put in each bathroom.

The recovery process

As the flood waters receded, large pumps were flown in by National Guard helicopters to pump water from inside the treatment plant. Water treatment pumps were flown out for repair. The 850-mile distribution system was recharged with treated water. Mains broken during the flood were identified and repaired. Bacteriologic tests at fire hydrants determined that water could now be restored to homes and businesses. On July 18, public water was restored for fire protection, bathing and sanitation in homes and businesses for some 80,000 customers at a time. By nightfall, customers in all affected areas had tap water. Water samples from 800 customer taps were tested several times during the next week. On July 30, tap water was determined to be drinkable.

Recovery and appreciation for safe water

The city was on its way to a slow and painful recovery. No one could estimate the physical or economic damage that occurred. Each day we were amazed at discovering damage that had been unknown for some time, and at how some people had to cope with their situations. We are back to normal operation now, but it will be a long time before we see the full impact of the disaster that affected many citizens in the state of Iowa beside the 300,000 in the metro area of the City of Des Moines.

The crises that developed because of the water plant shutting down have dramatically proven to Des Moines' residents just how important is water in our everyday lives, and that our very existence depends on maintaining safe water for human consumption.

NEHA is involved...

As we reported in the October issue of the Journal, Registered Environmental Health Specialists/Registered Sanitarians were invited to lend their expertise to helping the flood victims in Iowa. Working with the International Association of Milk, Food and Environmental Sanitarians, a mailing was conducted to this professional group in late August. The mailing served to officially notify environmental health professionals that their assistance with the myriad of aftermath environmental issues ranging from water supply to vector control would be appreciated.

Arrangements were worked out with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to financially assist with this operation. As such, for any professional (an their employers) who could not contribute on their own, compensation was available.

NEHA was proud to be of service in this matter. We thank IAMFES for asking for our involvement. And we especially thank all of those who accepted our invitation to restore a healthful environment to the many areas devastated by the flooding.

Bobby Baker, Chief Environmental Health Specialist, Polk County Health Dept., 5895 N.E. 14th St., Des Moines, IA 50313.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Environmental Health Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Baker, Bobby
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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