Memphis residents endure day 4 of water problems as freezing weather bursts pipes across the South


MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Memphis was on its fourth day of living under a boil water notice on Monday, as repair crews worked to fix broken pipes in the hopes of easing the stress caused by a week of sub-freezing temperatures, snow and ice in this southern city.

Memphis’ water company issued an advisory on Friday that residents of this city of more than 600,000 people should boil water they intended to use for drinking, brushing their teeth and preparing food. That's because low pressure in the system and breaks in water mains could allow harmful bacteria to contaminate the water supply.

Some residents lost all water service after winter storms that have caused at least 75 deaths around the U.S. this month, many involving hypothermia or road accidents. 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 afternoon that crews were 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.

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. They 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.”

Family and friends have helped them 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.

The utility has repaired 56 water main breaks and located more than 4,000 leaks at homes and businesses.

Memphis was the largest, but not the only, water system in Tennessee to experience problems from the unusually cold weather. The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said on Sunday night that 28 water systems were under boil water notices and 17 counties were reporting operational issues with their water utilities.

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

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

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.

The water shortages include Phillips County in eastern Arkansas, where a pump failure affected about 8,000 residents, according to the state Department of Emergency Management. The state's National Guard was dispatching water trucks to several affected communities. As freezing rain pelted the state on Monday, forecasters also warned of possible power outages.

The recent winter storm was the third since 2021 to hit Memphis, known more for its warm climate than freezing, icy weather.

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.

At the time, the utility was in the second year of a five-year, $105 million plan to update and strengthen the infrastructure. Utility officials called the situation “unprecedented.” and compared the water system to a patient who entered the hospital in critical condition and has been slowly improving.

An icy February 2022 storm spared the water system but led to more than 140,000 homes and businesses losing power in Tennessee. In Memphis, more than 500 trees fell onto city streets, blocking traffic and taking down electrical lines. Ice also damaged electrical transmission circuits, leading to delays in power restoration.

Electrical crews, including some from other states, worked 16-hour shifts to restore power. 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.