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    No water? People learned to make do

    In schools, hospitals, homes, restaurants and hotels, bottled water ruled the day as people tried to cope with contamination.

    [Times photo: Jim Damaske]
    At Belleair Elementary in Clearwater, students lining up for lunch pass a water fountain that has been covered with a warning: "Do Not Drink."

    By RICHARD DANIELSON, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 22, 2003


    At Lenny's Restaurant on U.S. 19 in Clearwater, the staff had just finished feeding Philadelphia Phillies players dinner Thursday night when general manager Kevin Schauer heard about the water main break.

    After talking to the restaurant's owners, Schauer decided to play it safe and close until he could check with the Pinellas County Health Department and determine what the restaurant should do to stay open.

    As it turned out, it needed to do a lot.

    Restaurant-made ice should be considered suspect, health officials told Schauer. Neither coffee nor tea brewing machines heat water enough to guarantee that bacteria would be killed. Soda fountains mix syrup with tap water and should not be used. Restaurants shouldn't wash produce in tap water, and bottled water should be used to make sauces.

    Even though this is Lenny's busiest time of the year, with 700 to 800 customers on weekdays and more than 1,000 a day on weekends, Schauer decided the risk of opening Friday wasn't worth it.

    At 1 a.m., he changed the marquee out front to say the place would be closed the whole day because of the water main break.

    Like Schauer, residents and workers across Pinellas County on Friday found their own ways of dealing with the boil-water order issued Thursday night after a break in a water main that supplies the bulk of the county's water.

    Drinking fountains in Clearwater and Largo were shut down. School cafeteria workers used ovens to boil water to wash dishes, and parents carried bottles of water to school as they dropped off their children. Fast-food restaurants refrained from selling fountain drinks.

    In the big hotels along the Pinellas Gulf coast, workers delivered bottled water to guests and shut off ice machines.

    On Sand Key, the Sheraton and the Radisson Suite Resort stopped serving tap water in the dining rooms. Ice machines were shut off, but both hotels said they have enough to get through the weekend and still serve cold drinks.

    "Basically it's just been an inconvenience to all of our guests," said Radisson spokeswoman Carol Wolff. "You just don't think about how many things water affects."

    At the Stratford Court retirement community in Palm Harbor, management was doing its best to help residents get bottled water.

    Stratford Court, with 218 independent living apartments, plus another 100 residents in health care or assisted living units, used its emergency supply of 40 cases of bottled water, said Lori Smith, Stratford Court director of community relations.

    Administrators ordered another 50 cases, plus 1,000 pounds of ice, Smith said. Water also was being boiled for use in some parts of the community.

    "It is a big inconvenience," Smith said.

    At Largo Medical Center, the staff is using a supply of 500 gallons of bottled water kept on hand at all times, and the hospital has ordered another shipment, according to spokeswoman Sandy Gourdine.

    Patients can't get coffee on their lunch trays, but nurses can brew it for them using the small coffee machines at the nurses' stations. Plastic plates and utensils are being used. The water fountains are out of service.

    "It's less of a crisis and more of an inconvenience," she said. "Hospitals always have to be prepared for emergencies."

    Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital in Tarpon Springs also keeps about 500 gallons of bottled water on hand for such emergencies and has ordered an additional 340 more gallons. Hospital officials anticipate they will need roughly 200 gallons of water a day for food preparation and other operations, said hospital spokesman Jerry Touchton. The hospital also ordered an extra 1,100 pounds of ice, after county health authorities warned them not to use ice made from ice makers at the hospital.

    Despite the water problems, children at Belleair Elementary School in Clearwater had plenty to drink.

    "Parents shifted into gear and we shifted into gear and got the water covered," principal Marcia Gibbs said.

    The school purchased 20 gallons of water, and five or six parents chipped in to buy several cases of bottled water.

    Before dumping out all of the ice in the cafeteria, cafeteria manager Joan Brake posted a sign on the ice maker warning that the ice may be contaminated.

    And since the cafeteria doesn't have stove tops, Brake and her crew spent much of the morning boiling pans of water in the ovens so they would have sanitary water for dish washing.

    "You just have to be flexible" Brake said.

    For lunch, Brake chose not to prepare foods that required water. So kids had fresh vegetables instead of cooked ones.

    Head plant operator Ben Getty also took charge, covering all of the water fountains with plastic garbage bags and taping signs on each that read, "Do Not Drink."

    Schauer, the manager at Lenny's in Clearwater, said he will try to open the restaurant today, but only after bringing in 600 gallons of bottled water, 500 pounds of ice from Tampa, about 1,000 cans of soda, rented coffee percolators, plastic cutlery, disposable plates and foam cups.

    "We're going to have sort of like a picnic breakfast," Schauer said.

    -- Times staff writers Kelley Benham, Jennifer Farrell and Lorri Helfand contributed to this report.

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