Mississippi residents struggle to get clean water after winter storms

Published 9:32 pm Friday, February 19, 2021

Residents of Mississippi’s capital city waited in line for hours Friday for drinking water while crews in the state and neighboring Louisiana scrambled to repair burst pipes after a vicious cold spell disrupted water service for hundreds of thousands of people in the two states.

Almost the entire city of Jackson with a population of approximately 161,000 had very low water pressure or no water at all, though an official said the city was hoping to restore service by Sunday.

At a city-run water pick-up station near Jackson’s medical district, scores of cars idled in the slush for potable water. Paul Lee Davis said he’d been in line for three and a half hours. The site had run out of bottled water, and Davis was waiting for another shipment to arrive.

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“A lot of people been giving up – they’re tired of waiting,” Davis said. “I’ve been here so long, I figure I might as well wait it out. We need water. The stores all are out. I don’t see what choice we have.”

At one point, Thomas Johnson, 39, got out of his car to play saxophone for people waiting. He walked up and down the line of cars, stopping to play for a few seconds in front of each one.

“I’m just trying to spread a lot of cheer,” Johnson, whose family had been out of water for a few days, said. “It’s tough out here. It’s cold. People are trying to survive.”

Not everyone could easily access a water distribution site. Lisa Thomas, 58, said her steep driveway is a sheet of ice, so it’s hard to get her car out. Her 67-year-old husband is on a defibrillator and heart monitor and is running out of his heart medication, but she hasn’t even been able to make it to the pharmacy.

“It would be nice to have some type of answers,” she said. “People are in dire need here. We need urgent help.”

At three Louisiana hospitals operated by Ochsner-LSU Health, staff used sanitary wipes to bathe patients. Patients and staff — including about 200 staffers living temporarily in the hospitals — used commodes usually reserved for bedsides to go to the bathroom and bottled water to brush their teeth and wash their hands.

The two hospitals in Shreveport and one in Monroe canceled clinics and elective and outpatient surgery and had water trucked in by fire departments, the state and the National Guard to keep their boilers running for heat. Equipment sterilization sometimes was delayed because it depends partly on city water supplies.

More than 192,000 Louisiana residents — about 4% of the state’s population — were without water Friday, according to data released by the state health department.

Tens of thousands of additional residents remained under advisories that they should boil their water before use, including nearly 70,000 people in the central Louisiana city of Alexandria, according to the health department.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said the worst of the state’s water outages were in north Louisiana and in the southwest city of Lake Charles, which was hit hard by Hurricane Laura in August. He said bulk and bottled water deliveries were planned for the most affected areas, particularly focused on hospitals, nursing homes and dialysis centers.

In the Louisiana town of Hackberry, the hot water pipes at the home where Nicole Beard was staying after her trailer was flattened by Laura burst three days ago. Then Thursday, the main water pipe into the house cracked, cutting off the water supply completely and forcing her to turn to bottled water. She said the communities that are facing water problems have not yet recovered from the hurricane.

“People are still just struggling over here,” she said.

The water woes along with power and heat outages are fallout from ice and snow storms early in the week that hammered Texas and other Southern states.

About 150,000 people in Louisiana and Mississippi were still without power on Friday afternoon, according to poweroutage.us. Entergy Mississippi president and CEO Haley Fisackerly said power could be restored to a majority of customers by early next week.

Plummeting temperatures froze water infrastructure and forced people to leave faucets dripping to prevent pipes from icing. Officials in Mississippi and Louisiana urged people to turn off their faucets, saying that was sapping water pressure.

Nic Hunter, the mayor of Lake Charles, blamed thousands of leaking pipes on private property in part for the water pressure problems in his city. Lumumba cited Jackson’s aging water system.

“Our infrastructure is not prepared to handle this,” he said Thursday.

Jackson public works director Charles Williams said Friday that the city is trying to restore water pressure by Saturday or Sunday, but was dealing with more than a dozen water main breaks and the possibility of more damage as temperatures rise.

“We do understand the sense of urgency,” Williams said.