Southern cities slammed by winter storms that left millions without energy for days have swapped one crisis for another: busted water pipes destroyed by record-low temperatures triggered safe drinking water shortages, shut down Memphis airport on Friday and left hospitals struggling to maintain sanitary conditions.
In Texas, 7 million people were told to boil tap water before drinking it, a quarter of the population of the second-largest state in the country, because low water pressure may have caused bacteria to seep into the system. A man died when a shortage of water pressure made medical attention impossible at an Abilene health care centre.
Due to water main ruptures and pumping station issues, about 260,000 homes and businesses in the Tennessee county that includes Memphis were ordered to boil water. Restaurants that are unable to do so or have no bottled water have been ordered to close. And issues with water pressure caused Memphis International Airport to cancel all incoming and outgoing flights on Fridays.
Most of the town of approximately 161,000 had no drinking water in Jackson, Mississippi. Crews pumped water to refill city tanks, but faced a shortage of treatment chemicals because frozen roads made it difficult to supply them to distributors, said Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba.
He said the water mains of the city are over 100 years old and not designed to tackle the freezing weather that hit the city as several storms dumped record quantities of snow across the South.
Lumumba said, “We are facing an extreme challenge of getting more water through our distribution system.”
The city offered water for flushing toilets and drinking, but it had to be picked up by people, leaving the elderly and those on icy roads unprotected.
Lisa Thomas said her driveway was a sheet of ice on a hill in Jackson. Her husband, who is on a heart defibrillator and monitor, only has enough heart medication to get him through Sunday because she couldn’t go to the pharmacy.
“Here, people are in dire need,” said Thomas.
At a water station set up by city officials, Paul Lee Davis got to the front of the line only to make the water run out. Three and a half hours after landing, he was still waiting for it to be refilled.
We need water and the shops are all out. I don’t see what options we’ve got,’ said Davis.
The water woes were the latest suffering for people across the South who, for days after the ice and snow storms earlier in the week, went without heat or power, forcing rolling blackouts from Minnesota to Texas.
For the first time since historical snowfall and single-digit temperatures produced a rise in demand for electricity to warm up home, buckling the power grid of the state and triggering the widespread blackouts, Texas electric grid operators said electricity transmission had returned to normal.
There were still smaller outages, but Bill Magness, president of the Texas Electric Reliability Council, said the grid would now supply electricity across the entire system.
In a state recognised as the U.S. energy capital, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered an investigation into the failure. As the grid approached a break point, ERCOT officials defended their plans and the decision to begin forced outages on Monday.
The storms have left more than 330,000 people without electricity from Virginia to Louisiana. Around 60,000 were still suffering a week-long blackout following a major ice and snow storm in Oregon on Friday. In the hardest-hit areas, the governor of Oregon directed the National Guard to go door-to-door to ensure that people have enough food and water.
At least 69 people, including those who died trying to get warm and a Tennessee farmer who tried to save two calves who apparently wandered into a frozen pond, were blamed for the extreme weather.
Acting administrator Bob Fenton of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said teams were distributing gasoline, water, blankets and other supplies in Texas.
“What worries me most is making sure people stay warm,” said Fenton on “CBS This Morning.”
Water pressure fell in several places after lines froze and because people left dripping faucets to stop icing pipes, officials said.
According to Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokeswoman Tiffany Young, more than 1,300 Texas public water systems and 159 counties had recorded weather-related operational disruptions affecting more than 14.9 million people as of Friday afternoon.
More than 1 million gallons (3.8 million litres) of water was delivered to the capital of Texas on Friday. But Greg Maszaros, Austin’s water chief, urged residents to limit the use of home faucets because “as we pressurise the system, there are still a lot of unknowns.”
In Dallas, David Lopez said he got more than 600 requests for service during the last week from the plumbing company he works for.
It’s pretty much first come, first served,” Lopez said, as he and a colleague on Friday manipulated a new water heater out of their van.” “They all have emergencies.”
In the fourth-largest US city, residents of Houston will probably have to boil tap water until Sunday or Monday, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
Water service was restored to two Houston Methodist community hospitals on Friday, but officials were still bringing in drinking water, said spokeswoman Gale Smith, and several elective surgeries were cancelled.
Memphis Children’s Research Hospital St. Jude said it was forced to turn to bottled water and bagged ice for all consumption and washed with hand sanitizer and no-rinse bathing wipes by workers and patients. All non-urgent activities have been postponed.
In the Little Rock field, Central Arkansas Water asked clients to conserve water to help protect its system as the ground started to warm and pipes thawed. Thursday night, the town of Hot Springs warned that its water supply was’ critically limited’ and also asked customers to conserve.
The Museum of Discovery announced in Little Rock that its building was flooded by a broken pipe, causing significant damage to theatres, galleries and offices and killing one exhibition specimen, a blue-tongued skink lizard.
According to the state health department, more than 192,000 Louisiana residents — some still trying to rebound from last August’s Hurricane Laura — had no water service on Friday. Boil-water advisories persisted for tens of thousands more.
On Friday, bulk and bottled water deliveries to the hardest-hit Louisiana areas were scheduled with an emphasis on hospitals, nursing homes and dialysis centres, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said, adding that he was optimistic that hotter weather would accelerate repairs over the weekend.
Nicole Beard said her boyfriend crawled under his house in the Louisiana neighbourhood of Hackberry to try to repair a broken water pipe, but couldn’t because he didn’t have the correct parts and it was too dark. She used bottled water and sent two of her daughters to stay at a nearby house.
“People here are still just struggling,” she said.