Often the availability of a safe drinking water supply during an emergency is the difference between life and death. Disasters can contaminate or destroy previously safe drinking water supplies. Under severe conditions, your knowledge of what to do is your lifeline while you wait for safe water supplies to be restored.
Working vigilantly to safeguard our most valuable natural resource, water systems should have emergency preparedness and response plans in place. Water providers work closely with local, state and federal officials to identify emergency scenarios and develop strategies for cooperative responses. Click on the links below to learn more about how you can plan ahead for a water supply emergency.
While water supply emergencies are very rare, here are possible events that could affect your water supply:
- Natural disaster, such as earthquakes or hurricanes
- Water contamination resulting from stormwater runoff
- System malfunctions
- Power outages
- Human error
- Major water main breaks
- Waste leakage
- Civil unrest
Municipal water suppliers are required to notify their customers if their water may not be safe to drink under the Safe Drinking Water Act
. In fact, prompt customer notification is an important part of utilities’ emergency plans. Water suppliers may issue "boil water” or “do-not-drink notices" when testing indicates that contamination may be present. Often, this alert will be broadcast on local television or radio stations. Some utilities employ a system that may automatically call customers with specific guidance or go to door-to-door in an emergency situation.
If you receive a water bill each month, it will provide to you the name, address and telephone number of your municipal water provider. You can contact them and ask about their procedure for notifying customers during a water emergency.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster preparedness website
, you can use the following for safe sources for water supplies if needed:
- Melted ice cubes.
- Liquids from canned goods such as fruit or vegetables.
- Water drained from pipes.
- Water drained from the water heater.
Unsafe sources that you should not use include:
- Hot water boilers (home heating systems).
- Water from the toilet bowl or flush tank.
- Water beds. Fungicides added to the water or chemicals in the vinyl may make water unsafe to use.
- Swimming pools and spas. Chemicals used to kill germs are too concentrated for safe drinking but can be used for personal hygiene, cleaning and related uses.
Microorganisms present in water can cause serious disease and even lead to death. Disinfect your emergency supply before using it for food preparation, drinking or for hygiene purposes.
There are several methods to disinfect water
. It is advisable to use a combination of disinfection techniques for maximum assurance. These measures are for temporary use in an emergency, because although they can kill most microorganisms, they will not remove other contaminants such as metals or other chemicals that may have entered the water.
- Boiling. Boiling is the safest method to disinfect water. Boil vigorously for 3 minutes (5 minutes or longer at high altitudes). Let the water cool before drinking. You must let the water cool before you chlorinate it or the chlorine will not work.
- Chlorination. Chlorine found in regular household bleach is a good disinfectant, but don’t use scented bleach or bleach with added cleaners. Add 6 drops of bleach for each gallon of water needed, stir, and let stand for 30 minutes. If the water doesn’t have a bleach odor after this time, add another 6 drops and wait another 15 minutes. If the water does not have a bleach odor after 15 minutes, discard the water and find another source.
- Distillation. If you have a heat source, this method not only kills microorganisms, but also removes other contaminants like metals. To distill water, boil it and collect the vapor that condenses. There are several ways to make a crude water still. One is to boil water in a pot that has a lid, and position the lid so that it is separated from the pot and tilted to one side. Put a cup under the low side and collect the water that drips into the cup.
Not usually. Slight color changes usually do not indicate a serious water problem. For example, a color change could result from minute quantities of iron in your water. This can occur immediately following a flushing of the distribution system. Sometimes dissolved air escaping from the water will cause bubbles that make the water look cloudy. This often occurs in the winter, when the water is cold and carries lots of oxygen or air. When it comes into your house it warms up and the oxygen wants to escape. You turn on the tap and, like shaking up that bottle of warm soda, the air fizzes up. In either case, nothing is wrong the water quality; both are safe to drink.
Most contaminants are detected by testing your water utility conducts on a regular basis and not by taste and odor. However, some contaminants can be detected by smell, and if you have a concern about how your water tastes or smells, stop using it and contact your utility immediately. Your utility tests the water for a wide range of contaminants daily, sometimes constantly, to ensure that you and your family have plenty of clean, safe drinking water.
It is a matter of personal choice whether or not to buy bottled water, however, if you’ve never had a problem with your tap water, there’s really no reason to start drinking bottled water now. If you do choose to buy bottled waters, read the label to tell you where the water comes from.
The main reason people might prefer bottled water is because it does not contain chlorine, and it therefore does not have the chlorinous flavor that tap water has. But it’s important to keep in mind that bottled water can sit for a long time on store shelves before it is sold.
Storing an adequate amount of drinking water should be part of your family’s emergency kit. Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and even power outages can interrupt the flow of water. Depending on your personal circumstances, you should store enough water for no less than three days and no more than 14 days.
The average American household uses an average of two gallons of water each day for drinking and cooking. To determine your exact usage, conduct a two-day test measuring the water you use to drink, brush your teeth and cook and cleanup. Store the water either in new containers or containers used to store drinking water.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency
- Don't use discarded plastic milk containers for water storage because bacteria could grow in them.
- Make sure containers are airtight.
- Store them in a cool location, and change them every few months to keep the water fresh.
also has a great website dedicated to helping individuals and families prepare for emergencies or disasters.
If you use private well water, you are responsible for the testing and quality of your water. Contact your local department of health or your water utility to determine where your water can be tested.
In a disaster, you need to conserve your supply of safe water until help arrives. However, don’t deprive yourself; your body needs water to function properly.
If you are caught in a disaster without safe drinking water, follow these steps to ensure survival:
- locate a source of water;
- disinfect the water; and
- drink as you need to.
Water treatment plants, water storage tanks and other utility facilities may be located throughout your community. Keep an eye out for any suspicious activity around utility facilities and if you see something unusual, contact your water utility or local police department immediately.