Oregon’s emergency alert systems blasted a cryptic alert to cellphones around the capital city, panicking residents by telling them simply “Civil Emergency” and “Prepare for Action” and leaving off that the threat was toxic algae at a local water supply.
Officials wanted to warn Salem-area residents Tuesday night that elevated levels of a natural toxin caused by the algae bloom had made area tap water unsafe for children and people with compromised immune systems. But that information got cut off, and a more ominous-sounding default message went out in its place, said Andrew Phelps, head of the state emergency management agency.
Officials sent a second message 31 minutes later with more information and a link to a municipal website.
Within hours of the first alert, residents stripped the aisles at one supermarket in the city’s downtown center of bottled water, and a shopping cart lay tipped on its side in front of the empty shelves. Workers brought out a pallet of sparkling water, which they placed at the front of the store, and told customers they hoped they’d get more regular water in the morning.