AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – Warmer temperatures spread across the southern United States on Saturday, bringing some relief to a winter weary region that faces a challenging clean-up and expensive repairs from days of extreme cold and widespread power outages.
In hard-hit Texas, where millions were warned to boil tap water before drinking it, the warm-up was expected to last for several days.
President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in Texas on Friday, directing federal agencies to help in the recovery.
The fallout included busted water pipes and shortages of clean drinking water, the closure of the Memphis airport and hospitals struggling to maintain sanitary conditions.
At least 69 deaths have been blamed on the weather, including that of a man at an Abilene health care facility where the lack of water pressure made medical treatment impossible.
Many people who perished were struggling to get warm. A Tennessee farmer died trying to save two calves that apparently wandered onto a frozen pond.
About 260,000 homes and businesses in the Tennessee county that includes Memphis were told to boil water because of water main ruptures and pumping station problems. Restaurants that could not do so or did not have bottled water were ordered to close.
Water pressure problems prompted Memphis International Airport to cancel all incoming and outgoing Friday flights, but the passenger terminal was expected to reopen by midafternoon Saturday.
The storms left more than 300,000 still without power across the country by Saturday morning. About 60,000 in Oregon on Friday were still enduring a weeklong outage following a massive ice and snow storm. Oregon’s governor ordered the National Guard to go door-to-door in the hardest-hit areas to ensure residents have enough food and water.
In Jackson, Mississippi, most of the city of about 161,000 had no running 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.
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.
Lisa Thomas said her driveway on a hill in Jackson was a sheet of ice. Her husband, who is on a defibrillator and heart monitor, has only enough heart medication to get him through Sunday because she hasn’t been able to go to the pharmacy.
“People are in dire need here,” Thomas said.
Paul Lee Davis got to the front of the line at a water station set up by city officials only to have the water run out. He was still waiting for it to be replenished three and a half hours after arriving.
“We need water, the stores all are out. I don’t see what choice we have,” Davis said.
The water woes were the latest misery for people across the South who went without heat or electricity for days after the ice and snow storms earlier in the week forced rolling blackouts from Minnesota to Texas.
Texas electrical grid operators said electricity transmission had returned to normal for the first time since historic snowfall and single-digit temperatures created a surge in demand that buckled the state’s power grid and causing the widespread blackouts.
Smaller outages remained, but Bill Magness, president of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said the grid now can provide power throughout the system.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered an investigation into the failure for a state known as the U.S. energy capital. ERCOT officials have defended their preparations and the decision to begin forced outages Monday as the grid reached breaking point.
The rolling blackouts resulted in a lawsuit filed Friday in a Nueces County court at law in Corpus Christi, claiming ERCOT ignored repeated warnings of weaknesses in the state’s power infrastructure.
A Dallas law firm alleged ERCOT and the American Electric Power utility caused property damage and business interruptions during the cold wave.
Also, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued civil investigative demands to ERCOT and electric utility companies, vowing to get “to the bottom of this power failure.” The investigation will cover power outages, emergency plans, energy pricing and more related to the winter storm.
“The large-scale failure of Texas power companies to withstand the winter storm left multiple millions of Texans without power and heat during lethal, record-low temperatures across the state,” Paxton’s office said in a statement.
In many areas, water pressure dropped after lines froze and because people left faucets dripping to prevent pipes from icing, authorities said.
As of Friday afternoon, more than 1,300 Texas public water systems and 159 counties had reported weather-related operational disruptions affecting more than 14.9 million people, according to Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokeswoman Tiffany Young.
More than 1 million gallons (3.8 million liters) of water was being trucked Friday to the Texas capital. But Austin’s water director, Greg Maszaros, implored residents to minimize the use of home faucets because “there’s still a lot of unknowns as we pressurize the system.”
In Dallas, David Lopez said the plumbing company he works for received more than 600 calls for service over the last week.
“It’s pretty much first come, first served,” said Lopez, as he and a colleague manhandled a new water heater out of their van on Friday. “Everyone’s got emergencies.”
Houston residents probably will have to boil tap water until Sunday or Monday, said Mayor Sylvester Turner.
Water service was restored Friday to two Houston Methodist community hospitals, but officials still were bringing in drinking water and some elective surgeries were canceled, spokeswoman Gale Smith said.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis said it was forced to switch to bottled drinking water and bagged ice and that staff and patients were washing with hand sanitizer and no-rinse bathing wipes. All non-urgent surgeries were postponed.
Rhodes College in Memphis said Friday that about 700 residential students were being moved to hotels in the suburbs of Germantown and Collierville after school bathrooms stopped functioning because of low water pressure.
Central Arkansas Water in the Little Rock area asked customers to conserve water to help protect its system as the ground began to warm and pipes thawed. The city of Hot Springs warned Thursday night that its water supply was “critically low” and also asked customers to conserve.
A broken pipe at the Museum of Discovery in Little Rock flooded its building, causing extensive damage to theaters, galleries and offices and killing one display animal, a blue-tongued skink lizard.
More than 192,000 Louisiana residents — some still struggling to recover from last August’s Hurricane Laura — had no water service Friday, according to the state health department. Tens of thousands more remained under boil-water advisories.
Bulk and bottled water deliveries were planned for the hardest-hit areas with a focus on hospitals, nursing homes and dialysis centers, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said, adding that he was hopeful that warmer weather expected during the weekend would speed up repairs.
In the Louisiana community of Hackberry, Nicole Beard said her boyfriend crawled under his house to try to fix a broken water line but couldn’t because he didn’t have the right parts and it was too dark. She was using bottled water and sent her two daughters to stay at another home.
“People are still just struggling over here,” she said.
Acacia Coronado is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
Sainz reported from Memphis. Associated Press journalists Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas; Rebecca Santana in New Orleans; Gillian Flaccus in Portland; Jake Bleiberg and Terry Wallace in Dallas; Ken Miller in Oklahoma City; Leah Willingham in Jackson, Mississippi; Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Michael Warren in Atlanta; and Tammy Webber in Fenton, Michigan, contributed.
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