The Great Water Panic of 2010

Photo © 2009 Éole Wind CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Always bet on stupidity.”

I heard that quote last week on a classic episode of Babylon 5, “Ceremonies of Light and Dark.” Fascinating that it should be so apropos.

I first heard about the water emergency Saturday afternoon when my daughter’s school phoned us with a pre-recorded message. They said there had been a break in a water main in Weston, and we should boil water from our faucet before using it. (Actually, I’m softening the wording here. The actual message was more in the form of an order, with unspeakable consequences should I disobey, like storm troopers coming to arrest me if I should disregard the “boil water order.”)

I immediately hit the Internet and New England Cable News for more information. Indeed a water main in Weston had sprung a catastrophic leak, affecting every city and town from there to Boston. Fortunately, they were able to switch over to backup reservoirs in order to maintain water pressure. Unfortunately, this reservoir water is untreated and has not been tested for safety, so federal regulations require that they promptly use words like “contaminated” and warn you to boil your water (like in a third-world country).

My reaction was predictable. Okay, I thought, we have reduced water quality for a little while. We can still wash and use the toilet. But we drink a lot of tap water, and I wanted to make some orange juice. So I’ll stop by the grocery store and pick up a gallon or two or bottled water to hold us over until the water quality is restored, as well as a number of other items on my list.

See, I assumed that because I had analyzed the situation and was not panicking, no one else would be either, because it wasn’t a panic situation. But I forgot that you should always count on stupidity.

When I got to the grocery store, there were few carriages in the parking lot and none in the foyer. Hmm, busy, I thought. When I reached the water aisle, there was not a bottle to be seen. However, the aisle was crowded with empty shopping carts. Clearly, people had been rushing to the store, grabbing a shopping cart in order to load up on water, reaching the water aisle, and then leaving their carts there when they discovered no bottled water to be had.

I was annoyed, of course, but not surprised. This isn’t the first panic we’ve had in recent years in this country. States of emergency here are like riding your car’s brake: when we finally do really need one, no one will be able to distinguish the warning signs.

So I reevaluated my needs. Aside from a number of dinner items, we simply needed stuff to drink. I wanted to make some orange juice, from frozen concentrate in the freezer. But the concentrate will keep; for now, I walked over to the refrigerated section and picked up a gallon of orange juice. (There were plenty of those.) I also grabbed a case of flavored seltzer, because the kids enjoy that—it’s a special treat.

Back home, I tuned into NECN for the latest update on the water leak. They were reporting on the rush on bottled water, had one lady on who said she was “stressed out” because she couldn’t find any bottled water. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. Uh…

By Sunday morning, they were predicting lowered water quality for at least four more days. The tap water was beginning to take on an off-scent, like lake water, which is essentially what it was.

You know, we swim in this stuff all the time, and we call it “vacation.”

Each Sunday the whole family usually piles into the car and visits my parents, because I want my kids to be close to their grandma and grandpa while they’re still with us on this earth. Fortunately, Grandma and Grandpa live far outside the boil-water area. “Far outside” in this case means “a 40-minute drive.” While we were visiting, we loaded up on bottled water; there was plenty to be had there.

A friend also noted on Facebook that she went to BJ’s in Natick, and they had lots of bottled water there. Yeah, Natick and Framingham are also well outside the boil-water area, but much closer than my parents’ place. Apparently, if you can’t find drinking water in Boston, you might have to gasp! drive 20 or 30 minutes down the highway to find some!

Remember what I said about emergencies? Remember that woman on NECN who didn’t know what she was going to do?

Look, this situation is an inconvenience, not an emergency. An emergency is when an asteroid has just hit Chicago. (Or when an oil well has just sprung a leak in the Gulf of Mexico.) Driving 30 minutes to find a jug of Poland Springs, because your neighbors are now hoarding them from you, that might be inconvenient; it might be annoying; it might even be stupid. (And indeed it is. Remember: always bet on stupidity.)

But it’s not an emergency. This is not a panic situation.

If worse came to worst… Like if an asteroid—or alien spacecraft—really did hit Chicago, thereby destroying all the bottled water in the country… If we really had to drink that untreated water from the reservoir, I’m guessing that we still would probably be okay—even those of us who couldn’t find the recipe for boiling the water. We don’t live in a third-world country yet.

We are relatively wealthy and well-fed. We are spoiled rotten! But people listen to what the media and their government tells them. And so it makes sense that they’d be scared out of their wits.

No wonder that depression and other psychological problems are so prevalent in our society.

And that’s no joke. In primitive cultures, which have not even a fraction of the means that we do, depression is almost unheard of, because people feel secure, even in their primitive poverty and disease and death. Seriously, people: relax! If it helps, chant to yourself, “God will provide. God will provide.” In a country as well-off as the US, that’s an exceedingly unspectacular task for him to perform.

Or as Douglas Adams put it: “Don’t panic.”