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Your guide to the latest news from around the Northwest

September 28, 2014 at 1:41 PM

Mercer Island lifts water-boil alert Monday morning; schools closed

Water fountain off limits and farmers market canceled at Mercerdale Park for Mercer Island #ecoli scare

The water fountain is off-limits and the farmers market was canceled at Mercerdale Park on Mercer Island Sunday due to a danger of E. coli. (Photo by Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

UPDATE: Monday, 9:10 a.m. | Authorities clear Mercer Island’s water supply for safe drinking, but tell residents to flush pipes and clear icemakers first. Read the story here.

UPDATE: Monday, 7:20 a.m. | Test results from the Sunday round of water samples are expected by 8 a.m. Monday morning, according to the mercergov.org website.

If the samples come back clean, the water-boil alert can end, authorities say.

ORIGINAL POST | The Mercer Island School District will be closed Monday, officials said Sunday, to give the district time to sanitize school facilities and wait for more data on the city’s water supply. Check for updates early Monday on the district’s website.

The announced closure came a day after the city of Mercer Island told residents and businesses that E. coli bacteria had been found in water samples collected from the island’s distribution system on Friday.

Though most strains of the fecal bacteria are harmless, some strains can make humans sick — a fact that set off a mini-panic on Saturday as residents scoured stores for bottled water.

None of the water samples collected Saturday contained E. coli, officials said, but one sample tested positive for total coliform, a bacteria commonly found in soil.

The city still advises all water customers to boil their water before consuming it or use bottled water. To kill any harmful organisms in the water, bring the water to a boil, let it boil for at least one minute and let it cool before using, according to the health department.

Tap water is safe for bathing, according to the advisory.

Public health officials maintained an order closing all 62 licensed food establishments, including coffee shops, on the island until the boil-water advisory is lifted.

Mercer Island’s water provider, Seattle Public Utilities, collected water samples again on Sunday. Officials expect test results for those samples to be available before 8 a.m. Monday. If the results are clear, city officials said, the boil-water advisory will likely be lifted in consultation with the Washington State Department of Health.

Water mains in potential problem areas have been flushed, officials said, and chlorine levels are being checked across the distribution system. The contamination has only been detected on Mercer Island, officials said.

The boil-water advisory, the first on the island in modern memory, took residents by surprise.

Susan McJannet, 43, was buying groceries at the QFC at Mercer Village Shopping Center on Saturday afternoon when she saw a flurry of shoppers stuffing as many gallons of bottled water and cans of bottled soda as they could into carts.

“Are we under attack?” she recalled thinking. “People were going bonkers.”

At about 3 p.m. Saturday, the city of Mercer Island issued the boil-water advisory.

The School District sent emails to parents. Before- and after-school activities held at district facilities also will be closed.

Restaurant owners taped handwritten apologies to the doors of their businesses. At the Mercer Village Shopping Center, that meant lost revenue for Yuzen Japanese Cuisine; El Sombrero Mexican Restaurant; Yo Mercer, a frozen yogurt shop; and Toshi’s Teriyaki.

When she heard the news around 4 p.m. Saturday, Mercer Nails & Spa owner Loann Nguyen left her store early to fetch bottled water from home and stock her spa’s fridge with it.

At the QFC, the health-department order meant that workers had to remove any produce touched by tap water or kept on ice, including vegetables, fish, and meat.

At a 5 p.m. Mass at St. Monica Catholic Church, Maggie Koehler, 93, said the priest mentioned to her and others that the city water supply was contaminated with E. coli.

Then Koehler and her fellow residents at Covenant Shores found the cafeteria at their retirement home wasn’t serving dinner. Luckily, Koehler said, she had a frozen dinner in her apartment.

As for brushing her teeth before bedtime, she resorted to rinsing her mouth with tonic water.

“I’m wondering, ‘Where’s the gin?’ ”

On Sunday morning, Koehler approached the Rite Aid store with her walker to buy bottled water.

Nearby, Mercer Island resident Joel Gamel, loaded his car’s trunk with two, 24-bottle cases of drinking water, his one and only priority before heading back home.

“I didn’t shower or shave,” said Gamel, 57. His wife was waiting for him to get home, he said, so she could shampoo her hair.

Across the street at Mercerdale Park, the Sunday Farmers Market was canceled. Still, children ran around a playground watched over by their parents, hardly noticing a police officer who wrapped red tape around a water fountain. He posted an advisory warning parents of the potential health hazard.

Aiching Lim, who brought her 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter to play, shrugs off the health department’s warnings. Her family used tap water to brush their teeth Saturday night and this morning, she said. The biochemist said she’s not scared that E. coli turned up in the city’s water supply.

“I feel bad for the mom and pop restaurants because obviously it’s going to affect their weekend business,” Lim said.

Back at the Mercer Village Shopping Center, Nguyen had just two technicians working Sunday — she normally has three or four on duty because it’s a busy time. But as of noon Sunday, only two customers had walked in. She said she felt bad for the restaurants closed nearby.

“It’s shocking to hear it because this is Mercer Island,” Nguyen said.

Workers at the shopping center’s QFC were wiping down produce shelves along a 30-foot wall, a day after the store threw out all vegetables that could have been contaminated by water-sprayers, including organic produce. Heaps of lettuce were still visible Sunday in the dumpster. Boxes of filtered water sat in front of shelves picked clean on Saturday evening. Also empty: Displays for pork loin, Angus beef and seafood that usually are kept cold with ice.

McJannet, who witnessed a rush on bottled water at the QFC, planned to have her kids stay at a friend’s house on Monday because of school closures..

“I can’t take time off,” said McJannet, who works at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Seattle. “We have people waiting to see us.”

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com On Twitter @sbhatt

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Comments | More in Environment, General news, Health | Topics: E. coli, Mercer Island, water

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