Deep freeze damages pipes, causing water crisis across the South

JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — Freezing temperatures that typically only freeze for a few hours in the Deep South are threatening dozens of water systems as burst pipes leak millions of gallons of water.

The problems arose Monday in large, troubled water systems like Jackson, Mississippi, where residents had to boil water over Christmas after months of most service interruptions due to a cascade of problems caused by years of poor maintenance.

They also occurred in Shreveport, Louisiana, where some residents were without water on Monday. In Selma, Alabama, the mayor declared a state of emergency because they feared the city would run out of water. Workers at a food bank in Greenville, South Carolina, opened their doors to floodwaters as they tried to save $1 million in food. Police departments across Atlanta said their 911 systems were overwhelmed by unnecessary emergency calls about a broken pipe.

Dozens of water systems have either issued boil warnings due to low pressure or warned of greater disaster if broken pipes are not found leaking and the water shut off.

The culprit was temperatures dropping below freezing early on Thursday or Friday, and there have been only a few hours above 32 degrees (0 Celsius) since then.

Water expands as it freezes, causing unprotected pipes to burst. Then when the temperature rises, those cracked pipes start leaking hundreds or thousands of gallons of water.

These leaks can go undetected for days over the holiday weekend when many businesses are closed, Mike Saia, spokesman for the Charleston, South Carolina, water system, told WCSC-TV.

Charleston is on the brink of boiling water for its hundreds of thousands of customers who could close restaurants and other businesses.

On a typical winter day, the system displaces approximately 50 million gallons of water. Over the holiday weekend, it produces about 100 million gallons. More than 400 customers have reported burst pipes, so between unreported leaks, closed businesses and empty vacation homes, the system counts thousands of leaking pipes that are spraying water.

“It’s death to death,” Saiya told the station.

Conditions in Jackson were less dire than in August, when flooding at one of the capital’s two water treatment plants exacerbated long-standing problems and left many of the capital’s 150,000 people without running water. Residents had to wait in line for drinking water, cooking, showering and flushing toilets.

But someone had no water pressure, and the city set up emergency water points on Christmas Day.

“We continue to work to restore pressure to the water supply. We are producing a lot of water and pushing it into the system, but the pressure is not increasing – despite these efforts at the plant. The problem has to be a serious leak in the system that we have not yet OK,” Jackson officials said in a statement.

In Selma, Mayor James Perkins Jr. issued an emergency order on Christmas Day requiring property owners to check their businesses for leaks before the city runs out of water. No update on Monday.

Broken pipes are also causing problems in individual buildings. On Christmas Eve, there was a massive leak at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, WFSA-TV reported.

At Harvest Hope Food Bank in Greenville, S.C., several inches of water gushed out when employees opened the building Monday morning. Broken water pipes were spraying water and workers turned away dozens of people in need, the food bank said.

A water outage cut power to food bank freezers and refrigerators, and workers faced the twin challenges of restoring power before food spoiled and keeping water from entering the area. The food bank said as much as $1 million in food could be destroyed.

The forecast does offer good news. Highs in the Deep South are expected to be at least in the 40s on Monday, and overnight freezing temperatures shouldn’t last that long until there’s plenty of warmth later in the week.

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