"Every drop of water we're getting is being used right now," said Robert E. Gibson, supervisor of water distribution for the Camden Utilities Department. "We can't get the pressure up."
Maintenance workers locked hydrants across the city in an effort to boost water pressure. But even as they did, officials worried that the locks might cause a more serious problem than low pressure: If there were a fire, it would take firefighters three to five minutes to unlock a hydrant.
Children have opened 20 percent of the city's 1,600 hydrants, mostly in South and North Camden, reducing water pressure. A hydrant can spew 1,000 gallons of water a minute, city officials said.
City workers had locked about 50 hydrants by 2 p.m. yesterday and hoped to double that number by day's end. They faced a population determined to cool itself with city water.
Some people have sawed hydrant locks in half. Others have pulled apart entire sections of hydrants to reach the turn-on valve. Water officials received a complaint that people were using a hydrant to bathe. Skeptical inspectors found a bar of soap on the curb.
In a city that uses 20.6 million gallons of water a day, open hydrants have drained the supply to dangerous levels, Gibson said. The system simply cannot replenish itself fast enough to meet demand.
Two city water tanks, which normally hold 85 to 90 feet of water, were down to 24 feet. A third was empty. The pressure in city water lines dropped nearly in half, from 45 pounds to 26 pounds per square inch.
About 350 workers were ordered from the 18-story Camden City Hall at noon when toilets on upper floors stopped working. Pressure was so low that water could not be pumped that high.
Employees exiting the building reported other water problems, and said they were warned to leave immediately because the electricity might fail.
"We were working and we were told to leave, that the elevators may not be working for very long," said Barbara Rosenbleeth, who works as a freeholder aide on the 12th floor.
"We have some water, but it's black," said Kasey Mundis, who works as a freeholder secretary on the third floor. The air-conditioning units seemed to be struggling, she added.
She stepped off the stone steps of City Hall and into the oppressive summer sun, followed by other workers who suddenly found themselves with a half-day vacation.
Temperatures in some upper-story offices streaked past 90 degrees yesterday, according to Camden County officials. No injuries or illnesses were reported, although the county Health Department was watching the situation.
"We cannot operate the toilets," said Dr. Jung Cho, county health officer. "If there's a fire, there's no water. . . . We cannot operate the air conditioner. The air conditioner has a water-cooling tower, and there's no water for it."
Cho said that, despite the fears of City Hall workers, he had no reports of rats climbing the pipes.
But that scenario was "very, very possible," Cho said. "In hot weather, they cannot find sufficient water, and they look all over."
Meanwhile, city and county officials were assessing the water shortage and hoping workers could return to City Hall this morning. County Administrator Steve Sasala consulted city Business Administrator Patrick J. Keating on the situation.
"He hopes, as do I, that the problem will be taken care of by tomorrow," Sasala said. "If that's the case, we won't have to repeat this."