A deadly arctic blast that whipped through the United States starting last week has left the country’s Deep South region grappling with the scourge of burst pipes, threatening leaks that could spill millions of litres of water.
The situation has left residents of cities such as Jackson, Mississippi — long troubled by a water crisis — boiling water over the Christmas holiday and into Monday.
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In the US South, where long stretches of freezing temperatures are rarer than in other parts of the country, water pipes are more likely to be found in uninsulated areas.
And with temperatures throughout the region hovering at or below 0C (32F) since Friday, the water in some of those pipes has frozen and expanded, creating pressure that causes leaks and bursts.
Dozens of cities in the region issued boil-water advisories or warned of bigger catastrophes if leaks from the broken pipes were not found and the water shut off.
“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” Mike Saia, a water system spokesperson for the city of Charleston, South Carolina, told WCSC-TV.
Charleston experienced near-record low temperatures on Christmas Eve, with the wind chill making the air feel even colder. Over the holiday weekend, the Charleston Water System reported an output of about 380 million litres (100 million gallons) — up from 190 million litres (50 million gallons) on a typical winter day.
Officials believe the increase is due to leaks, with more than 400 water customers reporting burst pipes and many more spills suspected in empty offices, homes and other buildings left vacant during the holidays.
Broken pipes can cause the water system to lose pressure, and repaired pipes must be disinfected before they can return to use. Officials in Charleston warned of the possibility of a boil-water notice, a rare event in the city.
The chilly weather exacerbated an existing water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, the state’s capital and most populous city. On Christmas Day, loss of water pressure led to a citywide boil-water advisory that has yet to be lifted.
“Please check your businesses and churches for leaks and broken pipes, as these add up tremendously and only worsen the problem,” the city said in a statement, adding: “We understand the timing is terrible.”
In the days leading up to the freeze, the US Congress passed a $1.7 trillion spending bill that allocated $600m to repairing the city’s battered water supply. That is in addition to $35.6m from the state under the American Rescue Plan Act, offered on the condition that the city matches the funds.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has estimated the repairs will require $1bn or more.
The city, where more than 82 percent of residents are Black and a quarter live in poverty, has experienced chronic water problems for years, including lead contamination and sewage overflow into the nearby Pearl River. A previous freeze in February 2021 left tens of thousands without running water.
But in July, the state put Jackson residents under a boil-water advisory after officials noted “higher than standard levels” of cloudiness in the water supply. The city linked the cloudiness to an “increased chance that water may contain disease-causing organisms”, responsible for nausea and diarrhoea.
Then, in August, heavy rainfall led to flooding on the Pearl River, causing residents to lose water pressure. Without running water, many were forced to line up at distribution sites in order to get water for their daily needs, such as drinking, cooking, bathing and flushing toilets.
Even after water pressure was restored, the city — home to nearly 150,000 residents — remained under a boil-water advisory until mid-September.
On Friday, the National Weather Service in Jackson warned of the extreme cold, writing on Twitter that the city had tied a 1963 record for the second-coldest temperature in its history, at -4C (25F).
Lumumba, the mayor, also had called the water distribution system a “huge vulnerability” going into the cold snap. “We are going to prepare for the worst, but pray for the best,” he said in a statement last week.
Elsewhere across the region, some residents in Shreveport, Louisiana, are also without water.
And in Selma, Alabama, Mayor James Perkins Jr warned on Facebook that if the leaks were not isolated, “there is a real possibility that we will run out of water”. He declared a local state of emergency, though the city officials later reported the water system had stabilised.
Workers, meanwhile, in the Harvest Hope food bank in Greenville, South Carolina, opened their doors on Monday morning to find broken pipes were spraying water across the facility.
“As soon as we opened the doors, we were met by a literal tidal wave,” spokesperson Chad Scott told local news station WYFF.
The food bank, one of the state’s largest, had to turn away people to respond to the situation, with officials estimating that more than $1m in food could be lost.