The Walkerton Water Disaster – “Here, you can drink the water again.”

The Situation 

In a mid-western Ontario town of 5,000 people, over 2,000 became sick from drinking E-coli contaminated, but otherwise ordinary tap water.  People were dying, including the town librarian, and the 2 year old daughter of the town police officer.  It was the largest public utilities disaster in North America in decades.

The communication challenges were huge.  How do you deal with international media attention in a small town without infrastructure?  How do you communicate public health and safety information to the residents?  What can you do to lower the risk of crippling class action lawsuits?  And how on earth do you convince residents to drink the water again?

The Plan

We created our own, daily newsletter and hand-dropped it in each mailbox.  In an environment where the majority of the population wasn't online, it was the only way we had to communicate on a daily basis.

We did our best to accommodate international media - trucking in extra sound equipment, arranging a temporary cell-tower for increased cellular usage and even arranging accommodations where we could.  This goodwill came to our benefit when the TV stations with helicopters offered to ferry the families of sick patients to hospital centres during non-peak hours (most patients were being air-ambulanced to locations several hours away.)

One of our team actually moved to the town full-time, and became widely known for always being available to help answer any questions or concerns.

Using interactive video, we explained how a new filtration process would work... and when the medical officials gave us the go ahead, we arranged for high-profile individuals to be seen drinking the tap water.

The Results

Liability was limited to the extent of the town's insurance coverage, thus preventing the province from bailing out the municipality, or forcing the municipality into bankruptcy.   Walkerton is now the home of a "Water research centre" and is widely acknowledged to have world-class tap water - even amongst the residents who lived through the disaster.

If you have other questions or want to talk about your situation, you can always reach me here, or give me a call at (888)662-4550.