This morning, after having power on for about 12 hours in parts of Woodstock, it went off again about 8:30. Water service to most of Woodstock has been off since Sunday afternoon and continues to be off. The situation, appearing to be looking up even yesterday, appears to be deteriorating under the shear weight of the disaster. Here’s the latest that I’m hearing:
- Volunteers have been organized to haul river water in pickup trucks to village houses so they can manually flush their toilets.
- Water is available from hoses in a couple of places, Woodstock High School and Woodstock Elementary.
- Porta-Potties are now set on the Green for public use.
- Phil Swanson, the Town Manager, and our State Rep. Allison Clarkson, have set up an emergency center of sorts at a table at the Elementary School. They are taking reports there and trying to give out information.
- The Town Hall has no phones, which doesn’t seem to matter since those there don’t seem to have much information.
- The Town of Woodstock website has zero current information, no emergency numbers.
- I talked to Bernie Sanders’ office in Burlington, which is being overwhelmed, and talked to a very helpful senior staffer who was unaware of the seriousness of our situation and pledged to bring it to the Senator’s attention. I expect Bernie will be pushing every button he can find to make something happen.
Here is what’s most disturbing to me, though. I’ve been digging into how our water system is run (having never paid attention to it before). Our municipal water system is not the responsibility of the Town, but of a private company, Woodstock Aqueduct Company, which has been around for years. The company has two addresses; one in Gillingham’s General Store on Elm Street, and one on Cox District Rd. in West Woodstock. The President is publicly listed as Jireh Billings, one of Gillingham’s Store owners. The vice president is listed as Eric Wegner. Woodstock Aqueduct Company has no website, and 2 telephone numbers, (802) 457-3040, and (802) 457-4497. Neither phone is being answered, and doesn’t even have voice mail, and we know that Gillingham’s has been closed since the flood on Sunday.
My wife talked to the town manager, Phil Swanson, a short time ago, and he reported that apparently the town water system has 2 water pumps. During the flood, a water line (or lines) were breached and the water system drained. By the time they got to the water plant and shut the pumps off, they were damaged and unable to operate. One new pump was ordered yesterday, and won’t be delivered until tomorrow. After it is installed, work will then begin pressure testing to find out where the leaks are so they can be repaired. Phil could give no estimate about how long this whole process will take.
Here is our risk, which I believe is unacceptable. We have an entire town at the mercy of a private, for-profit company of unknown size, capitalization, or ability to handle a large emergency such as we’re experiencing. The management of that company providing this public service is unavailable, and not communicating in the slightest to its customers. Their telephones are not being answered, there’s not even voicemail or answering service, and the townspeople don’t even know where to go for help. There are no progress reports, no timelines, no official plan that we are aware of. In this day in age of widely distributed social media and electronic communication, there is no excuse for operating like it’s the 1920’s, which, at best is a huge inconvenience, at worst a threat to public health.
I believe the town should take charge of the water system, and get it functioning as quickly as possible to protect the public health. After the Town is returned to some sort of normalcy, I then believe the Selectboard should undertake 2 inititatives: first, to review and quickly established a modern emergency response system that includes emergency communications capability and coordination. Second, they need to review our municipal water plan and how it is managed. I believe they should consider moving the municipal water function under Town management to insure against the uncertainly that we are experiencing today. Short of that, there should at least be minimum financial, staffing, and emergency standards set for any private company that manages the water system. Those standards would include an emergency plan and communications capability, and a 24/7 liaison with the town to coordinate repairs and information.
It’s been really great how everyone in Woodstock is pulling together in this challenging time. Neighbors are helping neighbors, and our town representatives are doing all they can in trying circumstances. However, this incident has highlighted huge shortcomings in our ability to take care of ourselves, and that needs to get fixed.
Note: Anyone who has further information or corrections, please let us know so we have the latest, and most accurate available.