Memphis Residents Endure Day 4 of Water Problems as Freezing Weather Bursts Pipes Across the South

AP Photo/Karen Pulfer Focht
Many roads remained slick and full of ice Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, in Memphis, Tenn. Memphis and the the surrounding area has endured a week of sub-freezing temperatures, snow and ice.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Memphis residents spent their fourth day boiling water for drinking, brushing their teeth and preparing food on Monday as repair crews worked to fix broken pipes in hopes of easing the stress caused by a week of subfreezing temperatures, snow and ice in this southern city.

The city’s water company issued a boil water notice on Friday to the more than 600,000 people it serves because low pressure in the system and breaks in water mains could allow harmful bacteria to contaminate the water supply.

“It’s frustrating for us homeowners, especially old folks, to have to deal with the snow and the water problem,” said 81-year-old William Wilkerson, who lost all water service between Thursday and Sunday.

Memphis was the largest, but not the only, water system in Tennessee to experience problems from the unusually cold weather that has caused dozens of deaths around the U.S. this month, many involving hypothermia or road accidents. The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said on Sunday night that 28 other water systems were under boil water notices and 19 counties were reporting operational issues with their water utilities.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Department of Health reported 34 weather-related fatalities across the state as of Monday.

Several days of below-freezing temperatures have also caused water problems for multiple cities around Arkansas, where freezing rain on Monday led to warnings of possible power outages as well.

In Tennessee, the several inches of snow and unusually low temperatures led the Tennessee Valley Authority to ask the 10 million people in its service area to conserve energy to avoid rolling blackouts. The utility saw its highest demand for electricity ever last week but the system remained stable.

Memphis, Light, Gas and Water CEO Doug McGowen told reporters Sunday that crews are making progress with repairs, and he expects most customers to have water service restored on Monday and Tuesday. They will still have to boil water, likely through Thursday, though.

Sarah Houston, executive director of Protect Our Aquifer, in Memphis, said she lost water service on Sunday night and still had no running water on Monday morning.

“I had filled up pitchers and water bottles and have some backup supply just for drinking,” she said. “Everybody’s going through it. It’s just unfortunate.”

While the majority-Black city is known more for its warm climate than freezing, icy weather, it has experienced winter storms in the past. But the storm last week was the fourth in past three years, showing that the city, like so many others, is feeling direct effects of climate change, Houston said.

“The first thing to recognize is that, having snow and multi-day deep freezes every year, is not normal,” she said.

Houston, known in Memphis as the city’s “water warrior,” said that water infrastructure in the South is not built for heavy snow, large ice accumulations and days of subfreezing temperatures.

“Our water lines are not buried beneath the frost line. They’re not insulated. And, they’re old,” she said. “If we had building codes like up North, they bury the lines deeper. Everyone’s plumbing is in the center of the house. Everything is insulated.”

She noted that Memphis Light, Gas and Water has poured at least $60 million into the water system since 2021 and said the situation would have been even worse without those improvements.

Earlier this year, the Environmental Defense Fund and Texas A&M University released the U.S. Climate Vulnerability Index. It found that Shelby County, which includes Memphis, is among the most vulnerable in the U.S. The measurements included food, water and waste management.

The Rev. Earle Fisher, a community activist and the pastor at Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church, said poorer neighborhoods have suffered years of infrastructure neglect.

“Even though the snowstorm exacerbates some of these issues, many of these issues have also been faced if there is a severe windstorm, if there was a severe rainstorm,” he said.

Fisher acknowledged severe weather can compound other problems poor people face. They may suffer if they lose workdays to road and business closures. If the cold weather makes them sick, they may not have access to health care. A lack of money and transportation could make it difficult to buy water or pick it up from a distribution center, he acknowledged.

In Tipton County, the fire department in Mason warned residents on Sunday to be prepared for a multiday water outage.

“There is no current time table on how long it will be before water services will be fully restored to all customers,” fire officials said in a Facebook post.

The recent winter storm was the fourth since 2021 to hit Memphis. Storms in February 2021 led to a week-long boil water advisory after water mains broke, wells failed, reservoirs froze, and motors at pumping stations overheated in a system with some parts dating to the 1930s.

An icy February 2022 storm spared the water system but led to more than 140,000 homes and businesses losing power in Tennessee. Some residents spent six days either staying with friends or family, in hotels, or huddled in their cold homes during the outage.

Ten months later, a December storm led to rolling blackouts and a long boil-water advisory in Memphis that also was caused by broken water mains in the city.

Memphis resident Pamela Wells had been without any water since Thursday morning when she noticed a trickle coming through on Sunday night.

“We kept praying that it was a sign that water was on the way,” she said. Family and friends have helped them over the past several days by delivering bottled water, she said, but she really missed things that she normally takes for granted like being able to wash her hands in the sink or take a shower.

She woke up Monday morning to find water pressure restored to about 40% of normal. “Hopefully we’re on our way to full restoration of our water.”