PORTLAND — Facing the largest boil-water order in the region’s history, Portlanders emptied stores’ supplies of bottled water, chucked potentially contaminated food and braced for a complicated Memorial Day weekend.
About 670,000 people in the Portland area were told after lunch Friday to boil water used for drinking, cooking and tooth-brushing. Three routine tests this week showed the water system was contaminated by E. coli bacteria, usually associated with animal or human fecal matter.
The samples that tested positive for bacteria were collected this week from two uncovered reservoirs at Mount Tabor. The Water Bureau said it collects about 240 bacterial samples per month throughout the system, and the test to determine the presence of bacteria takes 18 hours.
“The chance of any health problems related to this water test result is low,” Tri-County Health Officer Dr. Paul Lewis said. “If any problems occur, we would expect diarrhea.”
The Water Bureau is investigating the cause of the contamination. The city said contamination can occur when there is a loss of water pressure, a pipe breaks or when conditions expose drinking water to outside elements, such as animal waste.
Within the city, nearly every grocery store-from mom-and-pop shops to Wal-Mart-reported that they were out of water by the evening. At Grocery Outlet in North Portland, staffers said it took about half an hour to run out of the large jugs of water. People then started buying sparkling water, juice, beer and ice.
“It’s a weird combination of cabin fever, ‘Road Warrior’ and doomsday scenario preparation,” a store employee said by phone. A manager said she tried to order more water supplies for the weekend, but “they aren’t coming,” she said.
“It’s Memorial Day weekend, and no one’s answering phones or anything,” she said.
At least one grocery chain, Fred Meyer, was expecting fresh shipments of bottled water late Friday.
Stores and restaurants in neighboring towns were on edge-not sure whether the water restriction would bring big crowds and counteract the usual holiday slowdown.
At the Old Spaghetti Factory in Clackamas, a manager said they had plenty of clean water.
Authorities said the boil order would be lifted as soon as the water tested safe, which could be as early as this morning.
In the meantime, hotels warned their guests not to drink from the taps. The Jupiter Hotel, near the Lloyd District shopping hub, pulled water coolers into the lobby and posted warning signs anywhere a guest could access tap water.
Restaurants, cafes and the city’s famous craft brewers responded in different ways. Several closed for the day, including Stumptown Coffee. On Twitter, the chain said, “It’s an extra safety precaution related to rinsing milk pitchers, ice, dish washing, etc. Sorry about the inconvenience!”
Other food and drink shops expressed concern because they had learned of the order from customers and because the order came after lunch service.
“They probably should find a better way to get word to business owners, we found out from a customer,” the Arbor Lodge wrote to an Oregonian reporter on Twitter.
For Peter Schuh, manager of Giorgio’s Italian Restaurant, it was no big deal.
“The larger places are ordering 50 to 60 cases of water, but for us it’s just boil some water and make some fresh ice cubes,” he said, adding that he expected about 40 people for dinner Friday.
“We’re ready to go,” Schuh said an hour before opening.
Down the street at Touche Restaurant & Bar, the problems were solved by buying bags of ice produced from filtered water.
At the Laughing Planet Cafe in the city’s southwest corner, a manager said kale, romaine lettuce and other produce had to be thrown out because it had been cleaned with tap water. While the stoves were extra busy, he said, the store and the customers were calm.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.