TAMPA - It appears the tiny jaws of a squirrel may be responsible for costing dozens of Tampa restaurants thousands of dollars, and making life inconvenient for hundreds of thousands of water customers.
The city's water department said a power failure led to a drop in water pressure, possibly allowing bacteria and other contaminants to enter the drinking water supply. TECO, the company providing power to the David Tippin Water Treatment plant, said some kind of rodent chewed through a power line, causing the initial power outage.
Normally, a switch would shift the power supply to a second line, but the switch failed, said Brad Baird, Tampa's Water Department Director.
"This impacted our entire service area, all the way from MacDill Air Force Base up to New Tampa and the Pasco line, and all the way over to Town and County and to U.S. 301," Baird said. The system was exposed for at least an hour, and complete power restoration took several hours.
It's recommended that the 560,000 customers of Tampa's water department boil their water before drinking it. The boil water alert is on for the next 48-hours, until Sunday afternoon.
"We will be testing, taking samples throughout our system to make our water is safe to drink and use. And then once that is determined, the precautionary boil water alert notice will be lifted," Baird said.
Some restaurants were forced to close their doors on the typically busy Friday night, as employees couldn't wash their hands or dishes. P.F. Chang's and Maggiano's at Westshore, normally packed on Fridays, were barren with signs on the door apologizing to customers.
One couple booked an online reservation for P.F. Chang's, only to arrive to find the restaurant closed.
Lemon Grass, a small Thai restaurant on N. Dale Mabry Highway, stayed open and continued to serve customers water. But not straight from the tap. The staff boiled a large vat of water and poured it into pitchers for serving. They also provided bottled water.
A McDonald's restaurant tried to make the dining experience seamless, by providing soft drinks as requested, but employees were pouring the drinks out of two liter bottles instead of the soda fountain machines. The drive-thru line became backed up because of the extra time needed to manually pour the drinks.
A Burger King restaurant employee said she was told their water was purified through a separate system, and didn't require boiling.
Still, Tampa officials recommended restaurants follow the same precautions as regular customers.
"We would ask the restaurants boil the water," Baird said.
Alexander Harper, a sixth grade student in Tampa, said his school turned off the taps, and many kids went thirsty throughout the day.
"They said that we couldn't drink any water from out of the fountains," Harper said.
Grocery stores in the Tampa Bay area experienced a surge in bottled water sales. One customer said she was dreading the idea of brushing her teeth and washing her hair with 12 ounce bottles.