My Weekend in Portland: What If You Can’t Drink the Water?

The past weekend was my weekend “on,” meaning I worked both Saturday and Sunday

photo: jparadisi

at the infusion clinic. It was an okay weekend, as far as nursing goes, except for the hospital security office handing out a flyer informing us not to drink the water, or use the ice machine. Apparently, traces of E. coli bacteria were found the reservoir supplying water to the Westside of the city, including our hospital. For twenty-four hours all tap water needed to be boiled before use for drinking, food preparation, or hand washing dishes.

Our home was affected too, but fortunately, we keep an emergency supply of bottled water, so I didn’t have to play Little House on the Prairie, and boil water after work. My husband and I joked that if our water supply didn’t hold out, we’d have to switch to drinking beer (it held out).

Many coffee shops and small restaurants in our community, unable to boil enough water ahead to keep their food safe, were forced to close. The evening news showed pictures of Portland’s downtown water fountains, known as  “bubblers,” wrapped in plastic to prevent use, and signs placed on all the public fountains warning the public not to use them. Downtown grocery store shelves in were emptied of bottled water.

The inconvenience was short-lived. By 8:30 Sunday morning Portland’s water was declared safe citywide. The contaminated reservoir is empty and the cause under investigation. At work we ran all the taps for the recommended time to clear them, and emptied the ice machine. We joked about how inconvenient closed coffee shops are on a weekend.

I stopped laughing about the incident during a couple of appointments, however. Some of our patients are homeless in the area affected by the contaminated water. It has never occurred to me to wonder, “Where do they get their drinking water?” They get it from the public drinking fountains, and restroom taps. The homeless do not have facilities to boil and store water. For twenty-four hours, they were SOL for drinking water. I know this because more than one patient from this population came in asking for water. “I’m so thirsty,” they said. We handed out cups of water, supplementing them with the soft drinks and juices kept in the nutrition refrigerator.

I can’t stop thinking about how an inconvenience for most of our city was a disaster for others. I’m grateful it was temporary.