We Keep Us Safe When The City Fails

by Skye K

On December 21, 2022, a major water main laid 123 years ago, in 1899, broke on Rochester’s west side, reducing pressure enough to allow the introduction of harmful agents into the water supply for the poorest and most marginalized areas in the region—roughly half of the city, by geography, and including parts of some suburbs.

The city jumped into inaction and didn’t tell anyone directly that they had declared a Boil Water Advisory. Some found out through the news outlets later at night or early on December 22, when outlets began reporting on a press release that included a list of streets describing the affected area, which to an average reader appeared completely random. Also included in reports was a hastily drawn blob shape overlaid on an almost-illegible map of Rochester.

Unfortunately, many in our community only learned about the Boil Water Advisory through activists, community organizations, friends, neighbors, or landlords. The people at my workplace, a large facility with multiple drinking fountains inside the Boil Water Advisory area, only found out because I printed copies of the City’s map and posted them.

Later in the afternoon of the 22nd, the city published a more readable map—one which conflicted with the previous map! Eventually, robocalls went out to those in the affected area to warn them of the advisory. But to give a personal example of the uselessness of this approach, the city does not have my phone number attached to my home address, as far as I know. And if you’re houseless or were just passing through the area, you were S.O.L.

At the worst part of the storm, we were experiencing conditions sufficient to cause frostbite in under a half hour, and the few sanctioned “warming centers” closed at 9 PM.

The entirely predictable result of the lack of communication and information coming out of the city was confusion, worry, and distrust from the community. The city had already failed them on the water supply, and this was compounded by the approaching winter storm, which hit on December 23rd. Besides the mortally dangerous temperature shift, heavy storms like this in the past have caused power outages in Rochester on a massive scale,  which could last days and weeks, rather than hours. Many residents don’t have access to gas burners and would be left without access to water.

By 10:30 AM on Friday, December 23rd, the city was already seeing sporadic power outages. RG&E’s website was up and down throughout the day, as they somehow had failed to prepare for a spike in traffic during the storm, impacting community members’ ability to report outages or seek information on how many were without power and when it would be restored. At the worst part of the storm, we were experiencing conditions sufficient to cause frostbite in under a half hour, and the few sanctioned “warming centers” closed at 9 PM.

By the 24th, when I am writing this, power and water have largely been taken care of, but safe and warm housing has been completely ignored by the city government. The lack of communication throughout all of this has been inexcusable. And the city will continue to push for increased funding to RPD while our century-old water lines burst and our neighbors freeze to death surrounded by abandoned buildings.

It was the community that pulled together in an array of efforts to keep us all safe.

Community members saw that the city had failed to produce an adequate map of the area affected by the Boil Water Advisory; they stepped up, and produced maps.

Community members saw that the city was actively hostile toward our houseless neighbors, and would rather inflict violence than bring people to safety; they stepped up, organizing to transport houseless neighbors to warming centers and safe places.

Community members saw that the city had no plan for the possibility of a power outage during a Boil Water Advisory; they stepped up, designing systems to ensure continued access to safe water.

This isn’t a call for the city government to do better: it’s a call to the people to organize and make our communities safe for ourselves. Tap into mutual aid organizations, and get involved, or come up with a plan and find people to do it with you. You don’t have to be rich or well known, and you don’t need anyone’s permission to do good. Throughout this ordeal, and at all times, the safest people are those who work together to provide for each other, and for their community. If you see a need, fill a need. We can not rely on our governments as they exist now, and we certainly can not rely on more explicit capitalist entities like RG&E and their parent company, Avangrid.