Log Cabin water main break triggers review of Water Authority public alerts

No news release went out to local media outlets until six days after the road was closed due to a washout


Liz Fabian

Crews work Friday to repair a washed out approach to the bridge on Log Cabin Drive.

When a 12-inch water main rupture closed Log Cabin Road to traffic earlier this month, the Macon Water Authority posted a notice on Facebook but waited nearly a week to send out a larger media announcement to alert the public.

Although the pipe burst just before 8 p.m. June 17, an official news release did not go out until just before midnight Thursday – six days after the break and about four hours after board members raised questions about how the public was notified and whether a breakdown in communication occurred.

“I guess my concern is that in the past we’ve done some pretty timely responses for things considerably less (major),” District 3’s Dwight Jones said during committee meetings Thursday. “I’ll just be direct. Was there some kind of breakdown in this case that needs to be investigated?”

“I’m not sure, but we can certainly schedule a meeting to talk about that,” replied MWA Sr. Executive of Strategic Planning/Public Relations Lisa Golphin.

During Thursday’s meeting, Interim Executive Vice President of Plant and Field Operations Michel Wanna said the authority was notified about the Log Cabin break just before 8 p.m. June 17. Crews found the break, assessed the damage and called Wanna at about 11 p.m.

Wanna went to the scene and stayed most of the night. He called two other supervisors in the Capacity, Management, Operation and Maintenance division and a notice was put on Facebook shortly after 1 a.m. June 18, but nothing was sent directly to the media. It wasn’t until that post was updated, some time later, that the road closure was mentioned.

Newsroom managers prefer email alerts

The Macon Newsroom contacted managers at the local televisions stations to find out how their reporters learned of the break. The newsrooms of WMAZ, WMGT, and WGXA all had staff members or relatives who encountered the roadblock, which led to inquiries and their initial stories. None of their early reporting came from the social media post.

Golphin said she didn’t find out about the break herself until Monday morning. She sought more information about what was done to test the water levels to make sure it was safe and passed that along to a WMAZ reporter.

During Thursday’s committee meetings, Jones asked Golphin whether proper protocols were followed in the Log Cabin break that occurred leading into the Juneteenth holiday weekend.

“No, sir,” Golphin replied. “I think at that time it was just an emergency because of the level of water that was actually flowing in that area. From the pictures I’ve seen, it was really flowing like a river, so I think that the staff really wanted to get out to the site and make sure it was handled because it was a safety issue. The pictures we saw later on where the road had collapsed, that could have harmed customers and other people and residents in that area, so I think that staff really wanted to get out there and really make sure it was secure.”

Golphin said there is a list of key staff members who are to be alerted during major events so that proper public notification can be given.

The television news directors polled said they prefer email communications to tagging social media posts.

As one news manager put it: “I prefer emailed news release over checking Facebook or Twitter because it lands in our inbox as opposed to us having to find the right needle in the social haystack.”

Another said: “I would prefer a formal media release versus just a Facebook post. I can’t rely on Facebook putting it in our feeds so that we see it, but a formal email release won’t go unnoticed.”

MWA Executive Director Joey Leverette admitted the management staff “got our wires crossed” on the Log Cabin incident, but are learning from that lesson.

“We are reviewing our procedures, especially related to critical water main breaks, and updated other material. No excuse, but we have a lot of folks in new roles and working to make sure we are communicating better, internally and externally,” Leverette said in an email to the Macon Newsroom.

Log Cabin Drive was closed for nearly 10 days due to a water main break that washed out a section of the road near the bridge on June 17. (Liz Fabian)

When another 12 inch-water main burst on Riverside Drive on Sunday evening at about 8 p.m., the authority was notified by 9:15 p.m. and a media alert via email went out to local journalists within the hour.

Log Cabin Drive reopened just after noon Monday. Wanna said despite the projection that the road could be closed more than two weeks, MWA crews, county engineers and Preston Engineering hustled to get the job done sooner than expected.

“They all deserve a big shoutout,” he said.

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at [email protected] or 478-301-2976.