Mayor Berke discusses Tennessee American Water meeting; questions left unanswered
Twelve days after Chattanooga's water crisis, we're learning mayor Andy Berke met with Tennessee American Water (TAW) officials to discuss the outage that left 35,000 homes and businesses without water.
This is the first time our city's leader agreed to an on-camera interview about the water crisis. Mayor Berke communicated through social media and email through the event and vowed to meet with TAW to push for an explanation. We have continued to reach out to ask when that meeting would take place. On Wednesday, we learned that meeting happened Thursday, Sept. 19. Like us, he says he still has a lot of unanswered questions.
“I need to know that they're working on it and they're going to get us the real answers,” Berke said.
Berke sent Channel 3 the following statement on the meeting:
“I was in contact with the Tennessee American Water president and staff constantly throughout the outage incident, and met with their leadership late last week. I made it exceedingly clear that I had serious concerns over compensation issues that customers -- including the City of Chattanooga -- faced due to this outage, and I reiterated that their communications with the public throughout this period have been inadequate.
I also asked if they knew the cause at that time, which they did not, and how Tennessee American intends to find the cause.
Tennessee American Water knows I’m holding them accountable for what happened in our city 12 days ago, and we will certainly be meeting regularly, as they continue to look into the cause. Simply put, we need to know what happened, why it happened, and what they’re doing to make sure it does not happen again. That information will guide any actions taken by my administration moving forward.”
Berke says TAW told him they plan to reconstruct the water main with the help of engineers to and are conducting internal investigations. He says they did not share what caused the massive outage.
‘We gotta find out did somebody do something wrong? Was there an issue with the engineering? did something unexpected happen?” Berke said.
We reached out to TAW spokesperson Daphne Kirksey for an update on the cause. Kirksey sent the following statement saying in part, "What we know is that we were performing a planned capital project, and, during the course of the work, workers noticed a large amount of water beginning to surface at a location near but not part of the project. We worked around the clock to reduce the flow of water to allow the repair of the main break and to restore the system. We continue to evaluate the main break and hope to provide you with another update later this week."
Berke says he told TAW leaders that he wants the utility to be a part of the city's resiliency plan, but because the company is private and only regulated by the state, he can't force them to participate.
“My expectation is they have the best interest of this community at heart and part of my job is to make sure that when I meet with them as I have in the past couple of week we just keep giving them that message.”
Berke says he was disappointed in TAW's communication with the public during the outage, calling it "inadequate.”
We asked why he was not present for press conferences with other city officials throughout the crisis, instead of using social media to communicate with citizens.
“We’ve sent out emails. I've been on social media. I've been in pubic forums talking to people about this. I've answered questions from people about it . That's the expectation I have. When people have a question for me I answer it and that's what we've consistently done,” he said.
Berke says TAW has agreed to provide him with regular updates. We’re told that will happen on a monthly basis.
It's not clear how much the water outage cost the city in overtime, closing facilities, etc. That number has not been calculated yet because the budget for September has not been finalized. Berke says he is pushing for reimbursements for customers and the city.