In Much of the South, Subfreezing Weather Crippled Water Systems
By Rick Rojas, Alyson Krueger and Sydney Cromwell
BYRAM, Miss. — As soon as he saw that temperatures would nosedive to subfreezing lows over the Christmas weekend, Richard White had a strong hunch about the trouble it would spell for his community in Mississippi even after the ice had thawed: Frozen pipes would burst, and water in the system would stop flowing.
Sure enough, that’s what happened.
“We’ve been through this many times, and it’s just miserable,” said Mr. White, the mayor of Byram, just outside Jackson, Miss., and the owner of an auto supply store where water on Wednesday — five days after the temperature plunged — was still reduced to a trickle.
It was the same across much of the Southeast, where the bitter cold was long gone — the high in Byram skirted 70 degrees on Wednesday — but the fallout from the recent winter storm endured in the form of broken pipes, disrupted water systems and widespread aggravation.
Byram, which relies on Jackson’s long-troubled municipal water system, has been under a boil-water advisory for several days, as are hundreds of thousands of people in Memphis after more than three dozen water main breaks there. In Charleston, S.C., officials warned that the storm thrust the water system alarmingly close to catastrophe. In Selma, Ala., a series of major leaks led the mayor to declare a state of emergency.
Pipes also burst at the airports in Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., inserting yet another bump into a holiday travel season transformed into an obstacle course of cancellations and delays.
The myriad breaks and leaks have underscored the threat that extreme weather poses to local water systems. Those vulnerabilities have been exposed in recent years by winter storms, floods and hurricanes and are expected to keep intensifying because of climate change.
The water woes are among many caused by the monster winter storm that swept across the country beginning last week, causing temperatures to rapidly plunge, unleashing ice and slashing winds and dumping more than four feet of snow in some places. Although much of the South was spared an intense assault, the storm pushed temperatures to single digits in parts of the region, a level of cold that is unfamiliar and difficult to contend with.
“We’re not used to weather like this down here,” said Rex Jones, the owner of Cougar Oil in Selma, a city of about 17,000 people on the Alabama River. “We like warm weather on the river.”
In Selma, the authorities have been called to homes and businesses where pipes burst and a mess was left to clean up. “We’ve been working since Christmas because we had a lot of frozen lines, busted lines,” Chief Kenta Fulford of the Selma Police Department said.
Water seeped out of the doors of some shops in the Selma Mall. “The whole mall was just full of water,” said Shanna Bullard, who owns The Treasure Box Flea Market, a business that avoided the worst of it. “Luckily, it didn’t hit us that bad.”
In Memphis, restrictions limiting water use were rolled back on Wednesday as officials said that most of the major leaks in the city had been repaired. But a boil-water notice remained in place.
Lora Burke’s house was already going to be, as she put it, “wild and crazy” around the holidays, with three grown children and their children — ranging in age from 1 to 15 — piled inside.
“This year, we had a total of 13 people in the house,” she said.
Shortly after her family arrived, Ms. Burke, 65, tried to wash a load of laundry and the machine wouldn’t run. That’s how she discovered she had frozen pipes. “The young kids, my grandkids, were horrified and shocked when I said, ‘Don’t flush the toilet,’” she said.
“I constantly boiled water and kept it in pitchers, one in the dining room and one in the kitchen,” she added. “I probably boiled water seven or eight times in a day.”
Her family also started drinking canned sparkling water and juice. “One of the moms doesn’t let her son drink juice,” Ms. Burke said, “but even she was like, ‘Forget it, he can have apple juice.’”
At Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in downtown Memphis, hospital administrators said they had been well prepared. After a previous winter storm, the hospital installed pumps into its water system to increase pressure; it also keeps enough bottled water stocked for 1,700 patients.
Medical equipment and supplies are being cleaned with bottled or sterilized water. Doctors and nurses are using portable hand-washing stations that use purified water, which is also being used to prepare food.
“We put all these systems in place for the ‘just in case,’ and now we are at the ‘just in case,’” said Michael Wiggins, the hospital’s president and chief executive.
Kelly English, an acclaimed Memphis chef who runs four restaurants in the city, is offering customers a $5 gift certificate if they bring their own bottled water or soft drink. His restaurants have also turned off soda fountains and brought in 1,000 pounds of ice from Arkansas.
Mr. English also cautioned customers to brace themselves for their favorite dishes tasting slightly different than what they’re accustomed to because of the boiled water. “We even boiled water to wash our lettuce today,” he said.
In Jackson, the Mississippi capital, crews were repairing leaks across the city of 150,000 people and water pressure was gradually stabilizing. “Things are looking up,” Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told reporters on Wednesday. “The system has begun to recover.”
Still, he said, the outer reaches of the water system were waiting for their faucets to dispense more than drips. The problems only compound frustration that has built over years of recurring service disruptions and boil-water advisories as the system has fallen into a crisis for which aging and inadequate infrastructure are blamed — the result, many Jackson residents say, of a failure to invest sufficient resources in Mississippi’s largest city.
In August, the water system was overwhelmed by torrential rains that left more than 150,000 people in Jackson without access to safe drinking water, prompting an intervention by state and federal authorities. A winter storm in 2021 upended water service for weeks.
“This one has been a lot more frustrating to deal with than the last one,” said Ronnie Crudup Jr., a state lawmaker and the executive director of New Horizon Ministries, a nonprofit group, pointing to the timing — just before Christmas — as a reason for the added stress. “This one seems to hit more mentally and emotionally.”
He acknowledged a measure of optimism. In November, the Justice Department installed a third-party manager to oversee the water system. And more funds are available now to fix it.
“I think we know it’s going to get fixed,” Mr. Crudup said. “It’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take.”
In Byram, Mr. White’s phone was blowing up with calls. As mayor, he said, it was his duty to be reachable. And plenty of residents were fuming, fed up with service hiccups returning yet again.
Mr. White has ambitions of building Byram a water system of its own. It would be costly and laborious, but his city is growing, drawing residents and businesses.
“My people said, ‘No matter what it costs, I don’t want to be on Jackson’s water system,’” Mr. White said.
But first, he was calming the constituents calling to complain. Slowly, it seemed as though water pressure was picking up.
“It’s about twice as good as it was yesterday, and it’s not great,” he said.
Then he wanted to check again. He went to the restroom in his office and pressed the handle on the toilet.
“It’s flushing,” he said, a hint of surprise in his voice. “That’s pretty dang good.”
Rick Rojas reported from Byram, Alyson Krueger from Memphis and Sydney Cromwell from Selma.