A break in a major water line prompted a boil 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 order early Thursday in response to a water main break that was affecting customers in an area stretching from Columbia to Scott Air Force Base, including Belleville, Swansea and Shiloh.
All of Scott Air Force Base was affected by about 6 p.m.
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.
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 in Swansea. Water was flowing heavily on the ground in the area Thursday morning and caused 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. Residents and business owners rushed to stores to buy cases and and gallons of water and drinks, and restaurants tried to remain open and operating.
Repairs begin by midafternoon
By 3 p.m., crews had isolated the main break and service had been fully restored to most customers who experienced a loss of service or a decrease in water pressure. But the customers remained under a boil order that was expected to last up to 48 hours. About 100 customers near the location of the break still did not have water as of 3 p.m.
“Our team is replacing about 18 feet of the 24-inch water main,” said American Water spokeswoman Karen Cotton. “Barring no unforeseen circumstances the repairs should be made and water service restored sometime (Thursday)...Once water service is restored, those customers will be on a boil-water order.”
Cotton said all of Belleville, Swansea and Shiloh were affected by the initial boil order issued early Thursday morning. A second boil order was issued just after 9 a.m. for Millstadt, Waterloo and Columbia.
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.
Belleville and Northwest fire officials on scene off Illinois 161 said several hydrants were also affected by the break.
Restaurants adapt to operate through boil order
The boil order forced restaurants throughout Belleville to change their daily routine.
At Main St. Cafe in Belleville, waiters rolled in long carts of bottled drinks at about 10 a.m. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. John Walker, a patron at Main St. Cafe, ordered the last cup of coffee available.
“This was the absolute last pot,” Walker said. “I just lucked out and got here in time.”
Jeff Bair, owner of Pour @322, wasn’t as lucky.
Bair did not drink or serve coffee Thursday.
His business on Main Street, which has a flower shop attached, didn’t have any customers at 10:30 a.m., but Bair planned to keep his doors open all day.
“Coffee is a huge part of our business, and it’s a huge part of our lives,” Bair said. “I only drink coffee when I get here, so I had just gotten a cup and poured it out.”
Most schools close Thursday, plan to open Friday
School leaders met Thursday to figure out plans for Friday. Some expected to resume classes Friday but with revised meal plans. One district, Harmony Emge School District 175, asked that students bring a water bottle but added that bottled water would be available.
Only a few schools held classes Thursday in Belleville.
Some schools still ran their buses, so that students already waiting for buses wouldn’t get stranded.
Hospitals remain open, follow emergency procedures
St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Belleville activated its emergency operations center.
“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 followed 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.
Some surgeries scheduled for Thursday at Memorial were transferred to Memorial Hospital East, which is located in Shiloh. Memorial temporarily instructed ambulance crews to bring chest-pain patients to the Shiloh location, but eventually lifted the instruction.
Memorial’s surgeries scheduled for Friday were to proceed as scheduled.
Second major water line break in past year
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.