By Jack Gurner
WATER VALLEY – Monday afternoon John Tatum leaned on a mop handle and looked around his restaurant. It had been almost a week since heavy rains caused sewage to overflow into the White Star Café closing the Main Street eatery and bar.
Tatum was sanitizing the floor with a dilute mixture of chlorine bleach and water as he recounted the events of the past week. He said it was about 5:30 last Tuesday afternoon when he noticed water beginning to back-up in one of the floor drains.
“I was cooking for the Lions Club Christmas dinner,” Tatum said. “I got nervous and called my contractor and I asked him who to call. He just kind of laughed and said there’s really nothing you can do. There’s nobody to call. That’s the city’s water backing up into your sewer line.”
He and restaurant employees had been watching water rise for about an hour when members of the Lions Club began to arrive. “We had to tell them that we couldn’t serve their Christmas dinner. We had no plumbing facilities and we had sewage coming up out of the floor drains.”
By that time the bar room was half flooded and his dry stock room was completely flooded, he added. “The kitchen is about six inches higher than these floors but I could see the water almost to the top of the drain grate.”
Tatum and his staff moved the Lions across the street to the railroad depot meeting room. “I had already done the cooking. So, we just wheeled the hot box across the street and served them dinner. They got to have their party.”
Everyone was understanding and kind, according to Tatum. “They actually paid us a little bit extra for our trouble which I thought was pretty nice of them. After that we just sat here in disbelief watching the water get higher and higher and higher.”
“I keep saying water, but it was sewage,” he emphasized. “We had random floating brown sediment. It wasn’t just water. It smelled just awful. Finally, about midnight it stopped coming in and starting going out.”
The next day, Wednesday, Tatum talked to health department officials who told him to throw away all food items except those items with a good vacuum seal that could be bleached treated.
He said that the best estimate of his losses is somewhere between $7,500 and $12,000. But, that doesn’t include the loss of income suffered by his seven employees. Tatum described one as a mother of five who works in the kitchen. She told him that her kids wouldn’t get Christmas this year because of the closing.
Tatum expects to reopen mid-week. He said that the clean up would be finished late Monday and food would arrive Tuesday. “The kitchen will have a big prep day and the house crew will have a get-ready day and we ought to be open and ready to go on Wednesday morning.”
“The mayor has expressed his concern and has extended apologies,” Tatum said. “That’s all good and fine. I appreciate that. I just hope they’ll fix the problem.”
City officials do acknowledge there is a problem. Morris Surrette, Manager of the Water and Sewer Department, appeared before the Board of Alderman a year ago and explained that the city is entering the “age of replacement” for the city’s water and sewer infrastructure.
Surrette’s appearance prompted aldermen to raise outdated water rates in March to meet the costs of replacing worn out infrastructure and complying with new regulatory standards.
“Our sewer system is so old that it doesn’t function efficiently anymore. Heavy rain overloads the system,” Morris said Monday. He explained that the old pipes are not watertight anymore and allow inflow from rain. “We have places where the storm drains are leaking into the sewers.”
“We’re in the same situation as every town in the United States. Everything is aging…wearing out. I guess we thought it would last forever.”