Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Sandy city employees Taylor Vick and Mike Fox distribute water to residents at a staging area on 700 East in Sandy on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Residents in a portion of the city have been instructed not to use their tap water due to contamination from excess fluoride and possibly elevated levels of copper and lead.

SALT LAKE CITY — Of all the things Americans take for granted, water is near the top.

Getting information should be somewhere near the top, too. After all, this is the information age, right?

But back to water for a second: We turn the tap and expect an endless supply of life-giving, clean wetness to come out, either hot or cold, depending on how we want it. We shower in it, drink it, brush our teeth with it, cook with it and wash dishes in it. As much as 60 percent of our bodies are made up of the stuff.

Third World countries struggle to progress in part because their people have to spend so much time worrying about finding it. We’re supposed to be well beyond those worries here.

So when the water went bad in Sandy this month, that was no small matter. And when people stormed a public hearing on Monday to vent their frustrations over poor and incomplete communications from City Hall, that was even less of a small matter or, conversely, a big deal.

Sandy blew it. Its water system was seriously contaminated, people became sick and alarms were not sounded immediately.

People don’t like being kept in the dark when a public emergency is developing right in the pipes of their own homes.

More should have been done. But even when the city did decide to raise alarms, its communications were not particularly effective.

That brings us to an information age question. As the 21st century progresses, it’s fair to ask how, exactly, are cities supposed to get the word out?

They can try traditional media, but these don’t command the attention they once did. Because of dwindling budgets, some news outlets don’t notice cities like Sandy unless something big happens, like the water starts making people sick. Social media channels are popular, but which ones? What if you have decided Twitter and Facebook are just for old folks and you spend all your time on Steemit? (Yes, that is a thing.) How about Nextdoor? (Again, a thing.) And what do you do about people who wouldn’t know a Facebook from a faceplant?

Sandy eventually tried traditional and social media. It also tried going door-to-door in the affected area, leaving flyers. But many people weren’t home. And, as some of those angry people said at the public meeting, they thought the flyer was junk mail and didn’t bother looking at it.

The city also tried its reverse 911 system. This is a wonderful service that sends recorded messages to landlines and registered cellphones in an affected area. The only problem is, cellphone users have to register their phones with their local governments.

As the website ravemobilesafety.comreports, a 2017 survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that half of Americans no longer have landline phones (70 percent of millennials), and a lot of people never have thought to register their cellphones. A nation of people skeptical about too much government control probably wouldn’t be keen on registering their most important personal device, anyway.

Then there are those who have trouble hearing well, along with people who don’t speak English with much proficiency and … well … reverse 911 did about as well in Sandy as you would expect.

Cities actually spend a decent amount of time studying stuff like this. Last spring, Bloomberg Philanthropies convened a meeting with 54 communications specialists from cities in the U.S. and Britain. Some are hiring journalists to write punchier copy on city websites or to create videos that grab attention. Many have growing social media staffs to keep track of all the platforms, according to a blog account of the meeting on bloomberg.org.

But getting the word out to a distracted world in an emergency? In some ways, the 21st century has a lot in common with the 19th. The best method may be to send someone on a horse through the streets, shouting the news.

Obviously, Sandy had more problems than just how to deliver the news that its water was making people sick. The mayor has admitted the city was too slow to respond in any way. This needs to be investigated thoroughly.

11 comments on this story

So the anger at the public meeting was understandable. It also may have unleashed another problem.

The water apparently was contaminated from an accidental release of too much undiluted fluoride into the water supply, which in turn corroded pipes, unleashing copper and lead into tap water.

That has brought the whole issue of fluoridation back into the spotlight it has enjoyed off and on since the 1950s, with some people demanding a public vote on whether to stop fluoridation all together. If that debate gains traction, get ready for another test of the information age.