Read the Full Transcript: Press Conference on Water Access During COVID-19

Date: April 3, 2020
Read the Full Transcript: Press Conference on Water Access During COVID-19

This transcript is from the 4/2/2020 10am press conference urging the City of Buffalo to proactively restore water services to Buffalo residents amidst the COVID-19 crisis. 

Speakers include: Rahwa Ghirmatzion (Executive Director, PUSH Buffalo), Andrea Ó Súilleabháin (Executive Director, Partnership for the Public Good), Kevin Quinn (Supervising Attorney, Center for Elder Law & Justice), Stephen Halpern (attorney, Western New York Law Center), and most importantly, Mike, client of Stephen Halpern and a 67-year old Buffalo Water customer who lived without water for 16 months. Other host organizations include the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo and Neighborhood Legal Services.  

To watch the full video of the conference, click here

Rahwa Ghirmatzion: We’ve heard the term often that water is life. But we know that access to and affordability to clean, healthy water was a national crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic, including right here in Western New York. However, since the pandemic, where we’ve been told by public health and elected officials to shelter in place, practice good hygiene and social distancing to flatten the curve, access to water is essential to adhere to those mandates. This is a public health imperative to save lives and reduce community spread. And while we applaud Buffalo Water for the moratorium on shutoffs and the step to reconnect people who are impacted if they call, we feel they could be more proactive in their measures to ensure public safety and minimize community spread. I think it’s important to always hear from the people who are impacted in our community because they are the ones whose lived experience tells us things we may not automatically know if we’re not impacted by those issues ourselves. So I’d like Mike, a very brave local resident, to share his story on the impact to him and how it’s been to live without water.


Mike (client): Hello, my name is Mike. I’m a 67-year-old Vietnam veteran. I have COPD, diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure, which would not be good if I had COVID-19. Two years ago I had a stroke and was out of work for 6 months. As a result, my water was shut off. The water was off for about 16 months at which time I would only receive about $260 a week. My roof leaked and I can’t afford to get it replaced, so I collected the rain water in buckets to flush the toilet. I’d buy water to do dishes, showers, and for drinking. Before the water was turned back on, I could not find water. The weekend before my water was turned on, I went to two different stores. Finally, at the third store, I found water and my water was turned back on March 20 – Friday – thanks to being a client of the Western New York Law Center. My lawyer told me to call the number for the water company but they did not have a selection for turning it back on. I called them back, he did get the water turned on for me that day, and I’m very grateful for my lawyer and the Law Center. Thank you.


Ghirmatzion: Now I’d like for Andrea to tell us what the steps are needed in this moment. Every day that we wait, more lives will be lost.


Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: Thanks Rahwa and thanks Mike. After we all speak, I’d like to hear from Mike as well about how life was changed now that you have running water back in your home. In short, for almost two weeks, community and legal services organizations have pressed the city to do two things. First, to communicate more widely and effectively how people can get their water restored; and second, to take more proactive steps to go out and restore water. And, having a sense that in this emergency situation we can’t afford any more delay, this group of partners came together and came up with a list of six very practical steps the city could take at this time to show restoring water to residents at this time is a top priority. And we now have 70 organizations who have signed onto this list of steps and we have sent that to the Mayor and OJ McFoy, Chairman of the Buffalo Water Board, as a letter signed by 70 community organizations. I’ll share briefly these six steps.


On effective communication and outreach – first, the city could send letters via first class mail to all Buffalo Water customers who were shut off at any time in the last year. This could share that water could be turned on at no cost by calling Buffalo Water customer service and the letter should be clearly distinguishable from a bill so people feel comfortable opening it.


Second, the city can run repeated public service announcements on radio and television with the Buffalo Water customer service number read repeatedly and slowly. The City could also be making more use of social media to get the word out. We’ve only seen one time so far – and it was actually just yesterday – that the mayor had on his Facebook page the number to call to have your water restored.


Third under communication and outreach is to update the website of Buffalo Water. Still today there’s no information on the Buffalo Water website on how to get your water restored and that information was only added yesterday to the actual City of Buffalo website.


We then have three practical steps under actual service restoration – proactive steps for service restoration. First, the Water Board could create a database of all residences where they turned of water and whether the residence was occupied at that time. So when the city turns off water, a city worker marks on a form whether the house was occupied on that day when water was shut off. Then the city knows where they turned off water, very specifically; it has all those addresses, and at the time, which of those homes were occupied. So that database could be a crucial starting list to confirm where residents are still living without water now.

Second, the Water Board has the phone numbers for accountholders who have or have been able to maintain phones. So using this internal data that it has, city staff could be calling residents to ask “are you without water, can we restore it for you?” and get these appointments scheduled to turn back on the water. There’s a lot of city staff who are working from home now and this list could be divided up and city staff should be able to make these calls. I’ll say many of us community organizations have been reaching out to our partners and community organizations to share information and try to learn who is currently without water, but the City and Buffalo Water ultimately have a much broader platform. They have the power and the critical information needed to quickly reach people and be able to restore water.


Third under service restoration, we would ask the City to report out under the number of residents who have their water service restored at this time. We would like to know (1) at the start of the crisis back around March 15, how many residents were without water, and then (2) every week since then, how many customers have requested water turn-ons and how many turn-ons are actually happening. And we believe this is such a critical public health issue at this time that we would like a daily update on how many homes are being restored each day.


So, again, as these practical steps demonstrate, a lot of these are real common sense and not heavy lift steps and would show us the City of Buffalo is taking this lack of water seriously and that it’s a top priority. At this time, we know staying at home and washing your hands is universal guidance for this crisis, so no resident in the City of Good Neighbors should be forced to live without water. And I will turn it over to Kevin Quinn, the supervising attorney at the Center for Elder Law & Justice…


Kevin Quinn: Our office provides civil legal services to individuals over the age of 60 throughout the City of Buffalo as well as the eight Western New York counties. While the city has taken some steps to initiate water restorations, it simply has not been enough. And, I’d just like to share some perspective of the seniors I work with and the challenges they are facing by following the protocol the city has laid out thus far for water restoration. The current procedure operates under the assumption residents have access to print or electronic news and also social media. The procedure also operates under the assumption that residents have access to a telephone so they can call Buffalo Water to make an appointment. I can tell you this is not the case for many of the clients we work with. We reach a lot of our clients by going into the community and letting them know we are here for them. They’re not always able to proactively contact us for assistance. So while there has been some progress as far as restorations for a large part of our population this is simply not enough to reach them. We’ve heard from leaders in government and the medical field that the best precaution one can take to prevent contracting COVID-19 is to wash your hands We’ve also heard the elderly are most vulnerable to becoming severely ill with this virus. We are calling on the City of Buffalo to be more proactive and ensure Buffalonians have access to essential water service. All residents and more particularly senior citizens could be faced with a life or death situation without essential water service. With that being said, I’ll pass things along to Steve…


Steve Halpern: I’m privileged to be Mike’s lawyer. The challenge that city officials face here is fundamentally a moral one. The moral question is simple: what is the ethical obligation they have to our most vulnerable residents during the greatest crisis facing our city in living memory? A crisis threatening the lives of every one of us? Living through this crisis, we are all – all – struggling. We are all anxious, stressed, and fearful. But imagine if you will how anxious, stressed, and fearful you would feel if you were struggling to survive this without water. In that struggle, city officials have the opportunity and responsibility to act to protect our most vulnerable residents. They squandered that opportunity. They failed to meet that responsibility. Before that crisis, they showed the knowhow and power to act to shut off water to our poorest residents by the thousands to collect money. Now they must show that knowhow and power to act to save lives. Thank you.


Ghirmatzion: Thank you everyone. We will open it up to questions from the press.


Mike Baggerman (reporter, WBEN): I’m trying to get an understanding on the grand scope of things – I know you obviously want water access for City of Buffalo residents. We heard Michael’s story – do you know how many people are in a similar situation as Mike?


Ó Súilleabháin: That’s a very good question and we would love that data which is why we’re asking for the City to report out on it. We do have data from previous years that we’ve gotten through research requests. Unfortunately we don’t have the 2020 data for how many folks who have had their water shut off in recent months. But just as background from 2015 to March 2019, the city shut off water in over 17,000 instances. We do have data from this time last year. In January, February, and March, 2019 we know the city shut off water to 250-300 homes per month and around half of those were occupied at the time. So we would expect there to be hundreds of people in this situation when the coronavirus crisis started. And I know Steve has really been digging into this issues so feel free to add as well.


Halpern: I think that’s fine, Andrea. Those are the numbers and, as you can hear, they’re quite substantial.


Ghirmatzion: And I would also like to add that while we think that’s substantial, some people would hear that and say “well, that’s not a lot of people.” But in this moment, how are people accessing water just for drinking water and to do simple things like dishes and other ways of practicing good hygiene when we know for a fact many people are finding it difficult to find water in the places where they would normally purchase it and they are making several trips to multiple stores to try to get their needs met?


Halpern: I would just say on this issue, the kind of data we’re seeking in terms of the number of people who were living without water at the time this crisis hit and the number of people whose water has been restored – that’s fundamental governmental transparency about very basic information of importance to the community. And, all we’re asking the city to do is provide that public information now and to continue to do so on a running basis so we have a sense of what progress they’re making in dealing with this problem. It’s hard to fathom why that information should not be regularly available. Every day in the County Executive’s televised reports, every day in the Governor’s reports, there are numbers about who’s affected, who’s in the hospital, who’s gotten tested, and so forth. Why the city can’t follow that example and provide information about water and water shutoffs and water turnoffs is frankly beyond me.


Michael Mroziak (reporter, WBFO): Once we get out of the current pandemic crisis, how do you then negotiate with the city to make sure these folks who needed to have water restored as a result of the pandemic will be able to maintain some service at least for a while until they can get back on their feet? And adding to that, when we come out of this pandemic, we’re going to be diving head-first into a recession, there’s no denying that. So tell me the challenge of speaking with the city about trying to make sure these clients are still getting water or adequate service, just enough to get them back on their feet once we get through the worst of this.


Halpern: That’s a great question…the reality is once we do get through this, we will be facing a continuing problem. We obviously had a problem before this. Once we’re through this, there will be – we would hope – hundreds of people who had their water turned back on who still won’t have the ability to pay the money they owe. In the clients I have seen, people owe anywhere from I’d say $2,000 and $15,000 thus far. After this crisis, those dollars will obviously go up. And so the city and the Buffalo Water Board need to be proactive in dealing with this problem going forward. I am very concerned about the shutoffs that might occur as we get out of this thing. And I think it’s incumbent on the city and the water board to plan for this. I don’t think it’s remotely unreasonable to suggest there be a forgiveness program of all the debt people owe to the water board. Those programs have existed in the past in other cities. Baltimore has had such a program, Philadelphia has had such a program, Detroit has tried such a program. It seems to me no reason why we can’t initiate a similar program here in this city so people living on fixed limited incomes already aren’t saddled with debt they will never get out from under.


Quinn: If I could just add to that, we’ve worked for years trying to help people who have had water service shut off and as Steven mentioned the bills are absolutely outrageous and it’s a large part due to fees and penalties and high interest rates. So if someone were to fall behind on their bill for some financial hardship, the system is really designed to fail for them. How are they going to get caught up with their bill now with added interest, penalties, and fees? It’s just not possible. So that’s been an issue we’ve tried to combat long before this pandemic and, as Steve mentioned, it’s something the city should take a proactive approach on once we get out of this to make sure people still have water and aren’t saddled with these ridiculous fees. I don’t think it’s unreasonable, as Steve said, to have a conversation about forgiveness and starting fresh so people have water going forward also.


Ó Súilleabháin: And I’d just add there, one thing Mike (client) is on the phone and as we’ve heard he was without water for 16 months. And even in this crisis moment it’s very unlikely he would have gotten his water back on without the Western New York Law Center advocating for him, sharing information, and representing him. And we’ve just heard Kevin share of course about the good work from the Center for Elder Law & Justice in representing folks. But it’s long been on our agenda to address the issues that Steve and Kevin talked about. And this crisis is really holding up a magnifying glass to the structural inequalities and the problems in our system that have been around for a long time. So in this moment, we’re most concerned with folks who are simply not reached by service organizations like the Law Center or the Center for Elder Law. That’s why we’d like to see the city use the information that only they have to be able to reach these residents. And I’m sure Mike, Steve, Kevin can tell you – the folks that are simply unable to make minimum payments and keep their water going – a lot of those folks are unlikely to be regularly in and out of community organizations and getting that other assistance they might need as well.


Halpern: Mike, if you wouldn’t mind, would you be willing to talk about what you had to do and what life was like for you living without water, only if you don’t mind…


Mike (client): I don’t mind. I sort of got used to it, it was so long. Taking a bath was heating up a big pot of water and I had a cup and would pour water on me staring with my head, soap it up, pour another cup, rinse it off, and work my way down. Cooking – I had gallons of water I would buy for cooking, showers, dishes. Usually I wouldn’t even bother heating it up, except for showers of course, nobody wants a cold shower. But yeah it was really a thing – you can’t just go and turn on the water and you have to buy it every week. You have to make sure you have enough to make it through the week. You guestimate and hope you guess right.


Ghirmatzion: And Mike, can you tell us what has been your experience – it’s just been about a week or so since you had water. How is it different than it was without it?

Mike (client): Oh, the shower felt so good. A real shower. I felt like I got cleaner with the water on, especially with this virus going around washing hands. Luckily, I had hand sanitizer, so I was using that. But it’s so nice to be able to turn on the faucet and wash your hands, get a drink of water without having to get a bottle and look and make sure I have enough for the rest of the week. That was the biggest pain was making sure “do I have enough water, did I buy enough, to make it through the week.” So if I had to do a lot of dishes, there goes more, there goes my shower water. It’s so different.


Ghirmatzion: Thank you so much for sharing that.


Baggerman: If it’s alright with you guys, I’d like to ask a question to Mike the client. I’m just wondering, Mike, how this situation came about for you? How did you get in the situation where your water was shut off in the first place?


Mike (client): I didn’t have the money. I was out of work for 6 months, the only money I had coming in would cover the mortgage and my car insurance. And I needed the car to get to the hospital, which across town from where I live, I’d go to the VA hospital and I live across town from there. And I had to buy food…I don’t know how I kept the electric and the gas on. But it was a choice between the three. And the water lost. I needed electricity in the house to keep the refrigerator going, keep the food frozen and cold. I came back home right before November two years ago and I needed heat. So, I just didn’t have the money.


Ghirmatzion: Now I’d just also like to add that this is part of a larger problem. This is not just a problem that Mike is experiencing. In our line of work, we see this often – where people have to make decisions about paying utilities or putting food on the table oftentimes. And, we know that in America, the average American – more than 50% of Americans – could not afford a $400 emergency bill, so they might have to make the same decisions that Mike has had to make. And in Buffalo I think we oftentimes forget we are still the third-poorest city in America. This is generational poverty. People are already in crisis, so when you have an actual crisis like this pandemic, everything becomes exasperated. And, as Andrea shared with you, all of that now is under a magnifying glass where we can see it in our community across every local service we can imagine. And what we are asking for is in this moment – as Steve has said – this is a moral obligation. Yes, we will have to come with solutions on the back end of this pandemic, but right now we’re trying to flatten the curve even though we see in our community it is beginning to peak. And as public health officials have said, there are more than ten times the people that have been currently diagnosed, and there’s no ability to test. We’re asking people to shelter in place, to practice good hygiene, and we need to give them and do everything in our power they have the essential services to do that. And as many community members across Buffalo are doing with mutual aid, trying to house the homeless, figure out where people who are incarcerated coming out might go, and trying to get people basic things like food and water and other household needs so we can minimize community spread, we are trying to cast this big enough of a net to try to catch people and reduce the harm in our community. And we are asking city officials in Buffalo and Buffalo Water to step up and work with us. This is not about calling them out in any way – it is us asking to work with you to find all the creative solutions in order to meet the community’s needs.


Lauren Breen (Executive Director, Neighborhood Legal Services): I just want to highlight we really have two categories of people who are harmed in this situation. We have the people who have been shut off for nonpayment and we have people who have structural problems. Low-income homeowners who simply can’t afford to repair their water mains. And the program through the City of Buffalo – through HUD – requires that people be current with their water bills, be current with their taxes, be current with their user-fee bills – in order to be eligible for a loan or a grant to make those repairs. So the programs in place right now, if you’re behind and you’re going to be behind, simply don’t address the needs that we have for people, as Kevin mentioned, people who are on a fixed income and just low-income homeowners. So we’ve really got two categories of water customers who are harmed here.



This transcript has been edited for clarity.