Business owners: Tourists upset by water shortage


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ST. THOMAS - The WAPA water crisis is taking a toll on tourism during the island's peak season.

One visitor in abject frustration trashed a downtown restaurant bathroom after having seen numerous "no bathroom" signs Wednesday.

Tavern on the Waterfront owner Slawek Labeda said that he understood the outburst - which destroyed a hinged door - on what could have been the man's only vacation this year.

Labeda, who has owned the restaurant for 10 years and says he has never faced such a crisis on St. Thomas, said he approaches every table with an apology but contends his service has not slipped.

"It's a nightmare," he said. "It's just one big disaster. Besides the business losing money, it gives the island a bad reputation."

Wednesday, because of inoperable bathrooms, inoperable fountain and dishwashing machines and a scarcity of ice, cruise ship passengers were being diverted away from downtown and toward the resorts, according to some downtown business and restaurant owners.

Today, the V.I. Water and Power Authority continues its water rationing to St. Thomas' 5,500 customers, who have been without regular service since Nov. 15. That was when Unit 11, a steam-generating boiler, sprang leaks and forced WAPA to cut regular water production.

Wednesday, WAPA pumped water to Main Street businesses and residents from 6 to 8 a.m., a schedule that forced many restaurant owners to arrive before dawn to fill buckets in preparation for what should have ranked among their year's busiest times. Instead, they served customers using paper plates and cups because there was no water to operate dishwashing machines.

At Amalie Cafe, employees have been boiling water to do the dishes, said restaurant owner Randolph Maynard.

With inadequate water to run his business, Maynard has to buy 400 pounds of ice each morning, and he has spent $1,100 during the last nine days.

"It's driving up the cost of doing business, and it's leaving a lasting impression on people," Maynard said. "Everybody who eats at my restaurant is from somewhere else."

Maynard said he does not blame WAPA but the entire lack of governmental response that has helped drive tourists away from shopping and eating downtown during the shortage.

"It's the lack of response from the government and from Tourism," he said.

While his restaurant has a backup cistern that has helped the business cope with doing dishes by hand, it hasn't pumped enough water for the toilets.

"I'm constantly filling up buckets to flush the toilets," Maynard said. "It just looks bad."

Cruise ship passengers have been detouring to resorts instead of downtown, said Kahuna Surf Shack manager Marc Gross.

"It's horrible," Gross said. "This should be one of the busiest weeks of the year, and we're not getting the business. The cruise ships are telling their customers not to come downtown because there are no bathrooms."

From those passengers who have frequented Kahuna Surf Shack, the news Gross has learned is grim.

"I've been hearing nonstop from cruise ship passengers that they're telling they're families they'll never come back to St. Thomas," Gross said.

Gross and other restaurant owners have had to buy canned drinks because there is insufficient water pressure to pump fountain drinks.

Thanks to its cistern, the Green House Bar and Restaurant has some of the few functional bathrooms in downtown, which has helped business.

"It's been slammed this week because of it," said server Cherie Brown. "People just stray in because we have a bathroom."

But the restaurant has had to begin stopping the surplus of nonpaying walk-ins.

At Tavern on the Waterfront, Labeda said restaurants are in a unique position to hear the complaints.

"When I'm dealing with up to 80 people a day, I do hear the comments," Labeda said. "I wish one of the senators would sit here at the bar and listen."

Maynard said that his 10-year-old business is financially better off now than it has ever been, but the financial crunch caused by the water crisis is unacceptable.

"We're at the peak of the season and this happens," he said. "This is what we get? How do we not have water?"

WAPA is pumping 750,000 gallons of water daily by a temporary reverse osmosis system that filters seawater.

The utility expects to increase that amount to 1.5 million gallons of water per day by this weekend, said WAPA spokeswoman Cassandra Dunn.

Some customers have told The Daily News that despite the rationing, they never receive any water.

Dunn said water service is an inexact science.

"We haven't been in this place before," Dunn said. "Even though there's a solution in place that we planned for 18 months ago, these events right here were unanticipated."

Health concerns

Last week, the V.I. Health department issued a press release that warned residents to ward off the threat of infectious disease spawned by the water shortage at home with advice that includes frequent hand washing.

"Hand hygiene is critical to interrupt the spread of infectious diseases such as the common cold, influenza and gastrointestinal illnesses," according to the press release. The release did not elaborate on where residents were supposed to get water to wash their hands.

Health Department officials did not return phone calls from The Daily News.

- Contact reporter Michael Todd at 714-9104 or email mtodd@dailynews.vi.

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