What started as a historic flood northeast of Austin came down the city’s draconically complex system of lakes that serve as Austin’s reservoir and into the taps, faucets and drains in the homes of nearly 1 million people. Gravity is immutable, and there was perhaps no greater story that illustrated that than the boil-water notice.
Historic flooding along the Llano River (nearly 50 miles northeast of Austin) hit on Oct. 18. Dozens of homes were evacuated, and at least one person was swept away in the debris-laden waters. By the time they receded and Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of emergency, the clock began to tick.
That’s when the Llano River coursed all that debris and all that water into the Colorado, which feeds Austin’s reservoir. As to what that would mean for Austin’s drinking water, at first, the facts were murky.
What became clear – far too late – is that the city’s water utility – along with city, county and state officials – weren’t on the same page. And by the time the water made its way down the Colorado and into the chain of five lakes that supply Austin’s water, it was too late. Three days after that flooding on the Llano, residents of the 11th-largest city in the U.S. had no safe drinking water.
That’s when the questions became clear to our audience – and to us. When is it safe to use the water? How long will I have to boil my water? Where can I get clean water? How does Austin actually get its water?
We covered this story as a newsroom. Producers, reporters, photographers, hosts – everyone (even when our digital team was out-of-state for the Murrows – contributed to our online coverage – coverage that was our most-read in 2019 and had a near-record engagement time. Coverage that all took place within the 36 hours from when the boil-water notice was issued – and continued well beyond that when the picture – the question of how this happened – became clearer.