Winter weather upends water systems in Asheville, across the South

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 28, 2022

By Michael Goldberg

Associated Press/Report for America

A cold snap blanketing the Deep South has upended water systems as local officials struggle to repair widespread leaks and broken pipes, forcing some people to take drastic measures to get by without reliable access to running water.

Breakdowns in infrastructure arose in rapid succession after days of freezing temperatures in areas where extended periods of frigid weather are abnormal.

Parts of Asheville were experiencing water outages or were advised to boil water. The city said Tuesday afternoon that a water production facility has been unable to produce water since Dec. 24, and the problem has been exacerbated by line breaks because of extremely cold temperatures. A boil-water advisory was sent to more than 38,000 customers in the southern part of the system.

Woes are acute in places like Jackson, Mississippi, where the water system partially collapsed in late August and has had repeated weather-related breakdowns. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said the city is dealing with a “worst case scenario” on Tuesday.

Lumumba declared a local state of emergency Monday evening as Jackson’s troubled water system failed to produce adequate pressure because of broken and leaking pipes. Crews have spent days working to identify leaks, but city officials said pressure remains low or nonexistent. The Environmental Protection Agency is assisting with the effort to repair broken water lines, Lumumba said.

“We are dealing with an old, crumbling system that continues to offer challenge after challenge,” he said.

Tekemia Bennett said she hasn’t had any water since Friday. She and her four children woke up with no water on Christmas day.

“Christmas was very much like the Grinch came and stole it. I could not cook for my children. It was more like we were in survival mode,” Bennett said.

People flocked to water distribution sites set up by the city, but the lines were “as long as the eye could see,” Bennett said. She got in line two days in a row before eventually giving up.

Flushing a toilet without any pressure requires large quantities of water, a hot commodity in Jackson. So she began to cover her toilet bowl with plastic bags and trash can liners.

“We are actually defecating in bags and tying them up and throwing them in the trash,” Bennett said.

Throughout the Deep South, hundreds of leaks from broken pipes were draining water towers faster than treatment plants could replenish them.

Selma, Alabama, was in the third day of trying to find leaks and started Monday to shut down major lines and interrupting service to try to isolate where the biggest leaks were happening, Mayor James Perkins Jr. said in a statement.

Water crews in Florence, South Carolina, finally succeeded Tuesday in getting the water pressure back up after having to follow just about every water line in the city to find a large, but hidden, leak, officials said.

Widespread water problems also continued in Georgia. Officials on Monday began distributing water in Clayton County, a suburb just south of Atlanta, after burst pipes caused many customers to lose water on Sunday.

“It’s not a great feeling, and we are sad because on Christmas, I woke up to make tamales and realized we had no water,” Maria Landeros, a 30-year-resident of Forest Park, told WXIA-TV in Spanish.

Bottled water was being distributed Tuesday in Memphis, Tennessee, where authorities urged people “to limit all non-essential water uses.” An NBA game went on as planned Tuesday night, though only canned or bottled drinks were available.