For politicians at Baltimore City Hall, the complaints were about messaging — whether or not people were informed quickly enough about the E. Coli contamination and the boil water order that went into effect September 5 as a result. It was, in the minds of many of those people, a public relations fiasco. In West Baltimore, however, where an estimated 37,000 residents were without clean tap water for five days, the crisis wasn’t about whether a tweet went out fast enough, or a text blast reached enough people. 

 People wanted to know whether their water was safe. And the reality of losing a basic, but crucial, service weighed heavily as the week dragged on. “How do you brush your teeth?” a woman riding by a makeshift water distribution site in West Baltimore asked as volunteers from Organizing Black, a grassroots activism group based in Baltimore, handed out cases of bottled water. “How do you shower?” another asked. 

Organizing Black was among several community groups who, along with the city, distributed bottled water for days to residents in West Baltimore. Even after the boil water order was lifted on Friday, September 9, demand remained high in West Baltimore. Cars wrapped the block around Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School, and another line of cars formed near the corner of Mount Street and Harlem Avenue. People would ask for one for themselves, and another for a neighbor who couldn’t come to pick up a case. 

“We always have to take care of ourselves,” said Ralihk Hayes, deputy director of Organizing Black. 

Doris Moody, 85, of West Baltimore has lived in her house for 45 years. On the morning the boil water order was lifted, her tap began to spit brown water. 

“The leadership is bad,” Moody said.  

Moody stopped to grab a canned water, still cold, from Union Brewery, the Baltimore beer company which provided canned water for those in the affected area. She rubbed it across her brow and took a long sip.

“The people who run the DPW need to be held accountable,” Moody said, “and it doesn’t seem like they are.” 

J. Brian Charles was Deputy Editor of Baltimore Beat. Previously, he was a staffer at The Trace, The Hill, Chalkbeat, Governing, and Orange County Register. His work has appeared in Slate, Vox, Wired,...