Deep Freeze Causes Problems Across the South; Broken Water Mains Plague Cities

Workers in Tennessee raced Sunday to fix water mains that failed in freezing temperatures, and COVID-19 vaccine shipments resumed as the South carried on with efforts to recover from the winter weather that paralyzed parts of the nation.

In Texas, where millions of people endured days of bitter cold without power, officials urged President Joe Biden to visit as soon as possible.

Ten inches of snow fell in Memphis last week, followed by a sustained cold snap. With the forecast calling for temperatures to climb into the 50s, the city expected to see significant melting of the snow and ice that accumulated on streets, sidewalks and roofs. The storms also left more than 330,000 from Virginia to Louisiana without power.

At least 76 deaths have been attributed to the weather across the country. The Tennessee Department of Health on Saturday confirmed two weather-related fatalities in Sumner County, bringing the state’s current weather fatalities to 10.

Now the problem is not enough water.

Memphis remained under a boil advisory Sunday after officials said they were concerned that low water pressure caused by problems at aging pumping stations and a rash of water main ruptures could lead to contamination. Memphis, Light, Gas & Water has not said when it expects to lift the advisory, which has been in place since Thursday.

The utility’s president and CEO, J.T. Young, compared the situation to a hospital patient in critical condition.

“We are in the red status, if you will,” Young said Saturday.

About 260,000 homes and businesses were under the advisory. Hospitals and nursing homes switched to bottled water. The Tennessee National Guard was supplying St. Francis Hospital with water.

Nearby Baptist Memorial Hospital took on some of St. Francis’ patients, particularly those who need dialysis, said Dr. Jeff Wright, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Baptist. That hospital has a water purification system for dialysis and has water reserves for tasks such as cooking and bathing patients, he said.

City officials distributed water bottles at several locations Sunday. Grocery stores struggled to keep shelves stocked with bottled water. Many restaurants remained closed.

Flights resumed Saturday at Memphis International Airport after everything was grounded Friday because of water pressure problems. Some problems still lingered, but airport officials set up temporary restrooms.

Meanwhile in Kentucky and West Virginia, workers grappled with repairs to broken utility poles and downed lines.

About 37,000 customers in West Virginia were still without electricity Sunday, down from a peak of 97,000, according to Appalachian Power. The utility planned to use helicopters and drones Sunday to identify problems in remote areas. Some homes have been without power since back-to-back ice storms on Feb. 11 and Feb. 15.

City workers repair a busted water main in McComb, Miss., on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. Winter storms that dumped additional snow and ice on the Deep South plunged thousands of homes and businesses into darkness and left roads impassable across a wide area. (Matt Williamson /The Enterprise-Journal via AP)

The company has identified roughly 1,500 separate locations that need repairs and warned that while repairs are being made, the work remains difficult. In Wayne County, workers had to replace the same pole three times because trees kept falling on it.

About 30,000 customers remained without power Sunday in Kentucky, including more than 14,000 Kentucky Power customers in the state’s eastern reaches, according to poweroutage.us, a website that tracks outages.

Utility officials said some of their customers are still recovering from the recent paralyzing winter weather, particularly in Boyd, Carter and Lawrence counties. More than 2,000 Kentucky Power employees, foresters and assessors were working to get power restored.

Meanwhile, in middle Tennessee, power outages remained for approximately 3,300 residents as of Sunday.

Water issues plagued parts of Mississippi as well. In Jackson, most of the city of about 161,000 had no running water on Friday. 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.

He said the city’s water mains are more than 100 years old and not built to handle the freezing weather that hit the city as multiple storms dumped record amounts of snow across the South.

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

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

Meanwhile, the White House said about a third of the COVID-19 vaccine doses delayed by the storm were delivered over the weekend. The weather created a backlog of about 6 million doses as power outages closed some vaccination centers and icy weather stranded vaccine in shipping hubs.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told ABC’s “This Week” that about 2 million of the 6 million doses have gone out.

“We expect to rapidly catch up this week,” she said.

In Nashville, Tennessee, local COVID-19 task force leader Dr. Alex Jahangir said more than 2,300 seniors and teachers got vaccinated Saturday as the city resumed offering shots after days of treacherous weather.

Due to the wintry mess, local health officials last week vaccinated more than 500 people with doses that otherwise would have expired, including hundreds at homeless shelters and residents of a historically Black neighborhood who were mostly seniors with underlying health conditions.

President Joe Biden is eager to visit Texas, which was hit especially hard by the weather, Psaki said. Biden hopes to travel to the state this week but “doesn’t want to take away resources” from the response, she said.

“He is eager to go down to Texas and show his support,” she said. “But he is also very mindful of the fact that it’s not a light footprint for a president to travel to a disaster area.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that Biden can come anytime.

“We certainly would welcome him,” Turner said.

Texas Rep. Michael McCaul told CNN’s “State of the Union” that federal disaster relief can be used to help Texans hit with skyrocketing energy bills, repair burst pipes and repair flood damage.

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Associated Press writers Jonathan Mattise in Nashville, Tennessee, John Raby in Charleston, West Virginia, Hope Yen in Austin, Texas, Leah Willingham in Jackson, Mississippi; and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.