Cities Slammed by Winter Storms Face New Crisis: No Water

Texas grid operators say electrical system back to normal
February 19, 2021 Updated: February 19, 2021

AUSTIN, Texas—States slammed by winter storms that left millions without power for days have traded one crisis for another: Broken water pipes brought on by record-low temperatures have created a shortage of clean drinking water, shut down airports and left hospitals scrambling.

Texas authorities ordered 7 million people—a quarter of the population of the nation’s second-largest state—to boil tap water before drinking it because low water pressure could have allowed bacteria to seep into the system. A man died at an Abilene health care facility when a lack of water pressure made medical treatment impossible.

Donated water is unloaded
Donated water is unloaded at a distribution site in Houston, Texas, on Feb. 18, 2021. (David J. Phillip/AP Photo)

About 260,000 homes and businesses in Tennessee’s largest county, which includes Memphis, were told to boil water due to water main ruptures and problems at pumping stations. Memphis International Airport canceled all incoming and outgoing passenger flights Friday due to water pressure issues.

And in Jackson, Mississippi, most of the city of about 161,000 was without water. Crews pumped water to refill city tanks but faced a shortage of chemicals for treatment because icy roads made it difficult for distributors to deliver them, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said.

“We are dealing with an extreme challenge with getting more water through our distribution system,” Lumumba said.

The city was providing water for flushing toilets and drinking, but residents had to drive to set locations to pick it up–leaving elderly and those living on icy roads vulnerable.

Lisa Thomas said her driveway, located on a hill, is a sheet of ice. Her husband, who is on a defibrillator and heart monitor, is running out of his heart medication, with enough to get him through Sunday, because she hasn’t been able to make it to the pharmacy to refill it.

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

The water woes were the latest misery for residents left without heat or electricity for days after ice and snow storms swept through early in the week, forcing utilities from Minnesota to Texas to implement rolling blackouts to ease strained power grids.

use the light from a cell phone
Customers use the light from a cell phone to look in the meat section of a grocery store in Dallas, Texas, on Feb. 16, 2021. (LM Otero/AP Photo)

Texas’ grid operators said Friday that the system has returned to normal for the first time since a storm knocked out power to more than 4 million customers. Smaller outages remained, but Bill Magness, president of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, says the grid again has enough capacity to provide power throughout the entire system.

Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered an investigation into the failure in the energy capital of the U.S., while ERCOT officials have defended their preparations and the decision to begin forced outages early Monday as the grid reached a breaking point.

The storms also left more than 330,000 from Virginia to Louisiana without power and about 71,000 in Oregon were still enduring a weeklong outage following a massive ice and snow storm.

The extreme weather was blamed for the deaths of at least 59 people, including a Tennessee farmer trying to save two calves that apparently wandered into a frozen pond. A growing number of people have perished trying to keep warm.

Federal Emergency Management Agency acting administrator Bob Fenton said teams were in Texas with fuel, water, blankets and other supplies.

“What has me most worried is making sure that people stay warm,” Fenton said on “CBS This Morning,” while urging people without heat to go to a shelter or warming center.

Shelter in Texas
People seeking shelter from below freezing temperatures rest inside a church warming center in Houston, Texas, on Feb. 16, 2021. (David J. Phillip/AP Photo)

In many areas, water pressure dropped after lines froze and because people left faucets dripping to prevent pipes from icing, authorities said.

As of Thursday afternoon, more than 1,000 Texas public water systems and 177 of the state’s 254 counties had reported weather-related operational disruptions, affecting more than 14 million people, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Abbott urged Texas residents to shut off water to prevent more busted pipes and preserve municipal system pressure.

Two of Houston Methodist’s community hospitals had no running water and still treated patients but canceled most non-emergency surgeries and procedures for Thursday and possibly Friday, said spokeswoman Gale Smith.

Texas water crisis
Burger’s Lake put a hose on their natural spring and are supplying people with clean water in Fort Worth, Texas, on Feb. 18, 2021. (Yffy Yossifor/Star-Telegram via AP)

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said residents will probably have to boil tap water in the fourth-largest U.S. city until Sunday or Monday.

Central Arkansas Water, which services the Little Rock area, asked customers to conserve water to help protect the system as the ground began to warm and pipes thaw.

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 still was struggling to recover from Hurricane Laura. He said bulk and bottled water deliveries were planned Friday to hardest-hit areas and would be focused on hospitals, nursing homes and dialysis centers.

Edwards said he was grateful that warmer weather was forecasted across Louisiana by Saturday.

“I expect that over the next several days, we will make repairs to the water systems and get things functioning as close to normal as possible,” the governor said in a live event with the Washington Post.

By Paul J. Weber and Acacia Coronado