County water customer service goes south

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Customers calling the county’s emergency water line Sunday after a water main break caused an interruption in service to much of upper Hilo were met with another surprise — call center operators in South Carolina who, to some, might as well have been speaking another language.

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Customers calling the county’s emergency water line Sunday after a water main break caused an interruption in service to much of upper Hilo were met with another surprise — call center operators in South Carolina who, to some, might as well have been speaking another language.

“That’s our after-hours call center,” said Kawika Uyehara, deputy manager of the county Department of Water Supply, who acknowledged his department received “a couple of complaints.”

“Normally, outside business hours if a customer has an issue or needs help, the call will go to the call center. The call center will then call standby personnel in district, whether it’s Kona, Hilo wherever. Then, that standby personnel will be dispatched to respond,” Uyehara said.

George Lewitzki, who lives on Komohana Street, said he called about 5 p.m. Sunday and talked to two people — a woman operator and her male supervisor, both with heavy southern accents.

“I asked them, ‘Where are you?’ She said, ‘We’re in Hilo,’” Lewitzki said Monday. “I said, ‘Excuse me, what street are you on?’ And they tried to pronounce the street (Kekuanaoa Street). I said, ‘You guys aren’t in Hilo. I just drove past the water place. The place is dark.’ She said, ‘We’re in South Carolina.’

“They told me that I would probably found out more about it and sooner than they would. I said, ‘How is that possible? Who’s going to call me? Who’s going to inform me what this is all about? I’d like to know what part of town to avoid because, obviously, they’re going to be digging up the street or something.”

County Civil Defense issued a bulletin at 11:45 p.m. Sunday saying the water main break was “in an inaccessible location of the upper Kaumana area of Hilo” and water was shut off to customers in the Punahoa Mauka Estates Subdivision, along Haleloke and Hokulani Streets, plus Chong Street from Naauao Street to Lewa Nuu Street and Lawelawe Circle.

Emergency spigots were installed by fire hydrants on the mauka section of Haleloke Street and on Chong Street near Naauao, the message stated.

Uyehara said the break occurred “in a heavily forested area of upper Kaumana … due to a fallen tree.” He said he didn’t know how many customers were affected, and added at least partial water service was restored to all customers Monday and all customers should have had normal water pressure by Monday night. Uyehara said the department “apologizes for this inconvenience and thanks its customers for their patience and understanding.”

Lewitzki said his water was restored Monday morning, adding “but that’s not the issue.”

“The thing that kills me is that they tried to represent that they were here,” he said. “It just blew me away that we had a major issue with the water and the phone was being answered 6,000 miles away, that jobs are being outsourced 6,000 miles away by our water company. And they couldn’t give us more than vague information. Why can’t they pay local people to keep us informed?”

A call to the emergency line during business hours Monday was answered locally. Asked if the after-hours outsourcing was to save money, Uyehara said he didn’t know.

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“We apologize for that and we are looking into how we can better service or customers and respond to the questions appropriately,” he said. “I don’t know the facts about how we procured this one particular call center and we are looking into that right now. We’ll make the necessary improvements to service our customers better.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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