High and dry in Louth: ‘Boiling the water does not kill everything’

For elderly, homes with sick children and businesses, outage takes heavy toll

Martina Higgins of Gerry's Fresh Food in Bryanstown, Drogheda, Co Louth, explains how her business has coped during the water crisis in the northeast. Video: Simon Carswell

 

Mary Barrett pushes a trolley full with 18 bottles of water out of Aldi supermarket on the Donore Road in Drogheda. It is her second supermarket visit and second major water purchase of the morning.

At home she has three sick sons, the youngest of whom Kallum (11) has a connective tissue disorder known as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which affects his internal organs. He needs clean water, lots and lots of clean water, every day.

The burst pipeline a few kilometres from their home in Roughgrange near Donore in Co Meath that has cut off the water supply to much of Drogheda and the surrounding area has turned Barrett’s life into a military operation.

Since the loss of her water last Friday, she has been buying up to 100 litres a day to make sure the family have enough.

Kallum is on medication to help him go to the toilet, and his mother needs to make sure that she has enough five-litre bottles of water to keep the toilet cistern full.

“When he’s got to go, he’s got to go, but it stinks, so you have to have enough water. We went through 40 litres of water going to the toilet yesterday,” she says.

“For my other sons, you can tell them they can’t flush unless they poo, but you have to make sure that the toilet is clean for him.”

Otherwise, there might be another visit to a hospital for Kallum.

We are a small business. We don’t have a voice. Nobody cares. There are no photo opportunities for the politicians so they don’t come down here

Barrett says her household paid their water charges because of the health problems faced by their three children but never expected to be buying an extra 70 litres a day in supermarkets.

“We don’t mind as long as it is clean and safe for him to drink. We filled bottles overnight [when the water supply was turned on again briefly] and noticed bits of poo at the top of the bottle,” she says.

“That water was only going in the toilet but I know people who were drinking it and washing themselves in it. I cannot risk the boys washing themselves in that.”

The well runs dry

Others without a car for regular trips to supermarkets rely on friends, neighbours and volunteers.

“You never miss the water until the well runs dry,” says Catherina Bromley (65), taking three bottles of water from Sarah Hoey, a volunteer with the Order of Malta Ambulance Corps from nearby Ardee, who is distributing bottles donated by Coca Cola in the area.

Standing at the door of the house she was born in, Bromley says that people in her neighbourhood on the Marsh Road near Drogheda town centre who do not have a car have to walk more than a kilometre to the nearest shop and back carrying large bottles of water.

“I got some water from friends the other night and I am kind of stretching it. Everything is going in the kettle,” she said.

Martin Smyth, owner of Bia Cafe in Drogheda town centre, whose business is down €4,500 because of the crisis. Photograph: Simon Carswell
Martin Smyth, owner of Bia Cafe in Drogheda town centre, whose business is down €4,500 because of the crisis. Photograph: Simon Carswell

Around the corner, Beryl Faulkner (53) says her household has three cars so they have been able to drive out to bring water back.

“There are a lot of people who are worse off who don’t have cars,” she says.

Boiling point

Order of Malta volunteer Tommie Henderson and his ambulance crew have been trying to call to every housing estate in Drogheda every two days to make sure vulnerable, elderly people have water.

“We are seeing a lot of old people and meeting quite a lot of people who are drinking water from the tanks. The council is telling them to boil that water but that does not kill everything,” he says.

Rebecca Kerr, a volunteer from Ardee, says she has never seen a crisis of this scale.

“People are really grateful that we are actually out and helping. They ask do we know when the water is coming back on but we are as clueless as them,” she says.

The volunteer organisation has six ambulances out on the road. Crews came from as far away as Crumlin and Clondalkin to help out in what Minister for Local Government Eoghan Murphy has called “the biggest crisis that Irish Water has faced”.

€4,500 down

Martin Smyth, owner of Bia Cafe in Drogheda town centre, is unimpressed with the response of politicians. The water outages have cost him up to €4,500, he estimates, as he sits with customers at just four tables around him at what is normally a busy period over lunchtime.

Mr Smyth has a big wage bill to pay to his 15 staff on Friday and fears the cost of the crisis will rise to €12,000 by the weekend.

“We are a small business. We don’t have a voice. Nobody cares. There are no photo opportunities for the politicians so they don’t come down here,” he says.

Martina Higgins of Gerry’s Fresh Foods in Bryanstown, Co Louth: water outages forced the supermarket to close its hot food and salad counters. Photograph: Simon Carswell
Martina Higgins of Gerry’s Fresh Foods in Bryanstown, Co Louth: water outages forced the supermarket to close its hot food and salad counters. Photograph: Simon Carswell

Martina Higgins, operations manager at Gerry’s Fresh Foods supermarket in Bryanstown, outside Drogheda, says their deli business was down 25 per cent over the weekend.

The supermarket’s steam ovens need water to be cleaned, so food supplies were cancelled and staff sent home on Sunday, normally their busiest day. Since then they have relied on a tank and hundreds of litres of bottled water to keep the supermarket’s busy hot food and salad counters going.

“The worst part of it is not being told when the water is actually going to come back on,” she says. “The health inspector rang asking about our contingency plan but no business is going to have a contingency plan for water going off for a week.”