Metro-East News

Water line break hits estimated 75,000; schools closed, hospitals in emergency mode

A break in a major water line prompted a boil-water order Thursday for Belleville and neighboring communities, forced schools to close, put hospitals in emergency mode and left businesses scrambling.

Illinois American Water issued the boil-water order early Thursday in response to a water main break that was affecting customers in an area stretching from Columbia to parts of Scott Air Force Base, including Belleville, Swansea and Shiloh.

The company estimated that 30,000 customers — homes and businesses — were affected, in an area that has a population of about 75,000.

The break in a 24-inch line was reported near Illinois 161 and Old Caseyville Road. Water was flowing heavily on the ground in the area and causing a collapse in a roadway.

The break caused several schools and Southwestern Illinois College to close Thursday. Belleville’s two hospitals went into emergency mode. Customers bought water and soda from stores by the case. And restaurants tried to keep operating.

Illinois American Water said crews were working to repair the water main break “as quickly and as safely as possible.” An American Water spokeswoman said the company hoped the repairs would be completed by the end of Thursday.

The spokeswoman, Karen Cotton, said all of Belleville, Swansea and Shiloh were affected by the initial boil order. A second boil order was issued just after 9 a.m. for Millstadt, Waterloo and Columbia.

Cotton said the boil orders affected “several thousand customers” in the metro-east. The orders possibly affected some customers near Fairview Heights and O’Fallon. But O’Fallon officials said city residents whose water is supplied by O’Fallon Water Department were not affected.

St. Clair County Emergency Management Director Herb Simmons said bottled water was being delivered to the county jail. Simmons also said the health department was surveying local nursing homes to ensure they had water. The EMA didn’t have an official estimate of how many residents were affected, but said the break was “pretty widespread.”

“We’re monitoring all of that and waiting for the water company to tell us how long it’s going to be,” Simmons said.

Simmons also said crews were working to construct a temporary road connecting Michael Drive to Illinois 161 to access a nearby subdivision.

Belleville and Northwest fire officials on scene off Illinois 161 said several hydrants were also affected by the break. Northwest Fire Chief Chester Borkowski Jr. said area emergency agencies would work together to ensure the area had adequate fire protection.

The manager at West Main Cafe, in Belleville, was out buying bottled beverages at a grocery store at 9:30 a.m. An employee at the diner reported that the transmission line break wasn’t yet affecting customers’ options for food, but waitstaff was unable to serve the essential diner drinks, including water, soda, juice and, of course, coffee. Milk, however, was still on the menu.

Fletcher’s Kitchen & Tap in Belleville reported that the restaurant would remain open, but would be serving bottled water and canned drinks. Otherwise, the restaurant was offering its regular menu.

Belleville District 118 Superintendent Matt Klosterman said the district would likely make a decision Friday morning about whether to close school for a second day. Administrators would be following the progress on the water main repair throughout the day Thursday, he said.

“The biggest concern to operate would be to have water to operate bathrooms from a hygiene standpoint,” Klosterman said.

A few areas of Scott Air Force Base were affected. They included Lincoln’s Landing, Patriots Landing, and all other facilities south of Paul Revere Drive in the Patriot’s Landing area, including the Youth Center. The main area of Scott was not affected.

School leaders were meeting Thursday to figure out plans for Friday. Some expected to resume classes on Friday, but with revised meal plans. One district, Harmony Emge District 175, was asking that students bring a water bottle, but added that bottled water would be available.

Schools closed on Thursday included:

▪  Southwestern Illinois College announced that its Belleville campus and the Programs and Services for Older Persons would close at 10 a.m.Thursday due to the water main break

▪  All Belleville 118 schools

▪  Belleville West High School

▪  Belleville East High School

▪  Althoff Catholic High School

▪  Whiteside Elementary School and Whiteside Middle School

▪  Harmony-Emge District 175 in Belleville

▪  High Mount District 116 in Swansea

▪  Our Lady Queen of Peace in Belleville

▪  Wolf Branch District 113

▪  St. Teresa Catholic School in Belleville

Some schools still ran their buses, so that students already waiting for buses wouldn’t get stranded.

Belleville Township High School District 201 Superintendent Jeff Dosier said school administrators “had to act quickly” after learning of the break Thursday morning.

“It’s a pretty significant break, from what I understand,” Dosier told Fox 2 News. He said administrators would be meeting Thursday morning to discuss plans for Friday.

One Belleville school district’s administration decided to continue with school Thursday. Signal Hill School District 181 Superintendent Janice Kunz said in a post to social media that the district was unaffected by the water main break, but that precautions were being taken because of the boil order.

Also, schools in Belleville’s Belle Valley District 119 were open Thursday. Superintendent Lou Obernuefermann said schools’ water pressure was largely unaffected by the break. District 119 was covering water fountains and providing bottled water to students and staff.

Shiloh School District 85 Superintendent Dale Sauer said Shiloh elementary and middle schools remained open Thursday despite the village being under the boil order.

“We’ve brought water in from the outside for students and staff,” Sauer said.

Residents in the area began reporting eaerly Thursday that they didn’t have water. Some residents said they later had water flowing, but with low pressure.

A spokeswoman for St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Belleville said the hospital had activated its emergency operations center and was working on a plan of action.

“For the safety of our patients, visitors and colleagues, St. Elizabeth’s will be utilizing bottled water during the duration of the incident,” the hospital said in a statement. “Ongoing Incident Command meetings are taking place for continued planning. At this time, all functions of the hospital remain open.”

Memorial Hospital Belleville was following its emergency operating procedures. A spokeswoman said the hospital had bottled drinking water as well as other water available to flush toilets and for the boilers. Gel hand sanitizer was being used.

Surgery cases were cancelled at Memorial for Thursday, and the hospital was assessing what cases could be transferred to Memorial Hospital East, which is located in, Shiloh.

At Mimi’s Professional African Hair Braiding, on West Main Street in Belleville, the water issue created a few headaches, but Abra Gadu, a stylist there, was working through the shortage with gallons of bottled water that she bought at Family Dollar, she said.

Dona Nebelsick, who manages Krupp Florist on West Main Street in Belleville, said the lack of water didn’t affect the store much.

“We’ve been very fortunate here,” she said.

That’s because there was no shipment Thursday. Staff process and water the flowers after deliveries, and the most recent one was Wednesday. The lack of pressure didn’t affect designers, either. Although they’re in charge of preparing vases, they don’t take much water, Nebelsick said.

St. Clair Square Mall in Fairview Heights was unaffected by the break.

The broken pipe affected the 23 children who live at Caritas Family Solutions, a child-welfare and family-services agency at 900 Royal Heights Road in Belleville, said Kelci Jones, a communications specialist there.

“It’s a little chaotic,” she said, but Caritas was prepared. After the pipe broke, staff coordinated with another local organization it commonly works with so the children could use its gym and participate in extracurricular activities.

The children may have to stay in a hotel for one or two nights until the water situation is under control, Jones said. For some, spending the night out is exciting, but it can also be “disruptive for them and their environment.”

At the St. Clair County Jail, signs were posted around the jail telling corrections officers and inmates not to drink any water. Pallets of water bottles also were delivered. Jail employees also had 12-ounce cans of water from Anheuser-Busch.

The cans were then emptied into large beverage containers, which were then distributed around the facility, said Corrections Officer David Nichols.

Illinois American Water advised affected customers to bring their water to a rolling boil for five minutes before using water for drinking or cooking. The company said it is standard procedure for a boil order to be in effect for at least 36 to 48 hours after water service is restored.

In February 2016, a major water line break happened two miles away at Illinois 161 and Dutch Hollow Road. A 24-inch transmission main beneath a hydrant caused gushing water to shoot high into the air before cutting a deep trench in the earth.

The metro-east had an average of 676 water main breaks each year from 2001 to 2005, according to Illinois American. That average dropped to 608 between 2006 and 2010, and dropped further to an average of 537 between 2011 and 2015.

O’Fallon Progress reporter Robyn Kirsch contributed to this report.