ITHACA, N.Y. — Ithacan Audrey Starkweather will not be able to read this story on The Ithaca Voice website because she cannot afford to have the internet. She has a government issued phone with 350 minutes on it per month. She has DIRECTV instead of Time Warner Cable because it’s the cheapest option she could find.
About 17 years ago, she injured her back and could no longer work at the Oak Hill Manor Nursing Home. She has to stretch every dollar and now lives on $1,000 per month, issued to her because she qualifies for Social Security Disability.
Starkweather essentially lives in a news void. She completely missed city officials’ explanation about why the water in Ithaca is discolored. She gets her Ithaca news from a neighbor.
When her water turned yellowish-brown in early July, though, she called the Department of Public Works. This was when she first learned about the broader discolored water issue, and was given the same explanation as the rest of the city. The discoloration was caused by the drought, and city officials said that chemical feeds were also being adjusted at the new water treatment plant.
Since then Starkweather has used the few minutes she has on her phone to call the department about once a week for updates. Sometimes she gets an answer pretty quickly. Other times she has to wait on hold.
“Most of time you get somebody, but she has an attitude,” she said, noting that she could understand the woman’s frustration at being flooded with complaints.
“Now, it’s like, this is my routine now.”
Sean Jones lives two houses down from Starkweather. He’s also on a fixed income getting $820 a month in Supplemental Security Income and $159 a month in food stamps. Supplemental Security Income is given to elderly people or people with disabilities.
He said he usually runs out of money for food the last week or so of the month, though he does what he can to stretch his budget with a solid routine.
He walks to a local church for free lunch around noon. Then he goes to the Commons, sometimes buying french fries at Center Ithaca. He eventually makes his way over to The Jenkins Center on South Geneva Street, a peer support network center for people with mental health issues. The center offers free beverages and fresh fruit.
But Jones said that for the past week or two, he’s been going so he can fill up on water.
When he heads back home in the late afternoon or early evening, he caves and buys a large bottle of Dasani water. It costs him, “about $1.72. ”
“I’m surprised that, you know, like the fire department or something wouldn’t come by with bottled water knowing — or department of public works…knowing that our water is orange. But we haven’t seen none of that yet until probably someone gets sick,” he said.
Jones said he has not called the city about the problem and had not heard that city officials confirmed that the water was safe to drink.
When he was told, he shook his head and said he didn’t believe it.
He later pointed to the brown-stained street gutter where water was flowing while city officials flushed the hydrants nearby Wednesday.
He said, “There was a river — as you can see it’s brown here from the water…you can see it all along the curb.”
“We’re not stupid and we’re not blind…”
Jones and Starkweather said they are both not happy with how the city has handled the water discoloration.
They said water has become discolored during summer months in the past, but the color never lasted more than about a day and a half, or so.
They also said the city used to send out flyers to people about important issues. Starkweather said she remembers getting one about discolored water in the past.
Both of them said their biggest issue is the lack of information, or conflicting communication from the city.
For instance, Starkweather and Jones both said they’ve seen some particles resembling sand in the water.
Starkweather said she saw the particles when she put a stopper in the sink, let the discolored water out and saw residue left behind.
“We’re not stupid and we’re not blind, so when we see the stuff coming in it, don’t tell us that it ain’t coming in it — that there’s nothing there,” she said. It only adds to the distrust for her.
She said her daughter, who lives in Dryden, has been bringing her a two or three gallon cooler of water whenever she comes to Ithaca. The family used to use it while camping when Starkweather was in better health. She’s unsure exactly how frequently to expect the water, though.
“Whenever she has to come downtown because they ain’t got much money either. So I asked her to do it just when they’re coming down anyhow. Don’t make a special trip.”