The 25,000 residents in the southeast Iowa town of Ottumwa are trying to learn to live without a precious commodity — water. The city water works was inundated by Thursday night’s downpour of more than five inches of rain and was switched off when sewage backed up and hit the main water pumps.
City spokesman Tom Rogers says schools and many businesses have been forced to close — along with virtually all watering holes. Rogers says: "Our water system here in Ottumwa is shut down. As a result, the restaurants, bars and lounges basically are required by state law to close if they don’t have running water. So we have asked all those folks to close down until that service can be restored." He says the city’s response to the problem was immediate and residents are cooperating.
Rogers says they’re placing 20 or so Port-a-Potties for public use around town in various locations. The Red Cross plans to open a shelter very soon and he says there are plans for a mass distribution of bottled water. Rogers says the water works had to be shut down about 11 o’clock Thursday night. He says if all goes well, the pumps will be running again in 24 to 36-hours.
Rogers says: "The pumps that basically supply all of the water out to the city were all submerged in wastewater that came up. Those pumps have all been removed. They’ve been sent to professional industrial cleaners and they’re reworking them and getting them ready to operate. That’s about a 12-hour process in itself, just the cleaning, and then, of course, they’ll have to be shipped back and put in place before we can turn them back on." He says the situation is no one’s fault and there was no negligence or malfunction at the water works.
Rogers says: "We received just an incredible amount of rainwater last evening. A very intense storm passed through here. It just overwhelmed the sewer system. We have a combined sewer system which carries both the household wastewater and the storm water. With that much storm water coming in, the pipes just couldn’t handle it and it had to go somewhere. It found this floor drain and came up." He’s reassuring residents that the Ottumwa Fire Department is still prepared in the event of a fire.
Rogers says there’s a reserve of water from a public reservoir that’s set aside just for fighting fires, adding, the crews of the local city and rural fire departments are well-trained in fighting fires at which they have to carry their own water. While he says in a best-case scenario, the water may be back on by Saturday night, but if water pressure drops significantly due to too much water use, the spigots could be dry for four or five days.