Doug McGowen, president and CEO of Memphis Light, Gas and Water, speaks to the media as a MLGW crew fixes a water main break behind him in Memphis, Tenn., on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024. McGowen noted that as the temperature warms up and more ice begins to melt Sunday, more leaks are likely to be discovered. (Chris Day/The Commercial Appeal via AP)

Much of US still gripped by Arctic weather as Memphis deals with numerous broken water pipes

By TRAVIS LOLLER Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Much of the U.S. remained gripped by deadly Arctic weather Sunday — with subfreezing conditions reaching as far south as Texas and Florida. But the numbing cold is expected to ease up in the coming days.

Nationally, winter storms this month have claimed at least 67 lives around the U.S., many involving hypothermia or road accidents.

On Sunday, crews in Memphis, Tennessee continued to work around the clock to find and fix broken pipes that were causing low water pressure throughout the system. Some residents have been without running water for days, and all of the utility’s 400,000 customers continued to be under a boil water notice.

Memphis Light, Gas and Water President and CEO Doug McGowen said in a video posted to social media on Saturday evening that he hopes to have an estimate of when pressure will be restored on Sunday afternoon.

“Hang in there,” McGowen said. “Neighbors help neighbors.”

As of Saturday afternoon, the utility had repaired 36 broken water mains and more than 2,000 leaks in homes and businesses. As temperatures began to rise above freezing on Sunday, more leaks were expected to become apparent. McGowen asked residents to stop dripping faucets once things warmed up, a measure that would add 5 to 10 million gallons a day to the system and help restore water pressure.

Rhodes College, in Memphis, began sending residential students home on Saturday and moving those who could not return home to hotels. The school was planning virtual classes on Monday and Tuesday.

“We ask that you NOT come to campus either day due to the ongoing water situation and the hazards that creates,” the school announcement said.

Sam Roth is a junior majoring in politics, philosophy and economics who drove back home to Nashville rather than staying in a hotel where he would still be required to boil water.

“Our faucets stopped working, and they said not to use any of the restrooms on our floor, and our showers were not working very well either,” he said of the situation in his dormitory.

“It’s a little annoying, but the school’s doing everything they can to accommodate everyone,” he said. “I just feel worse for the people that are without water in the city that don’t have a hotel they can go stay at.”

Restaurants and bars were using bottled water to serve customers on Sunday. Some restaurants remained closed, citing the water issue, while others had a modified menu. Cafe Eclectic was open but not serving espresso drinks.

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 Saturday night that 28 water systems have issued boil water notices.

In Tipton County, the fire department in Mason warned residents on Saturday to be prepared for a multiday water outage. Firefighters were helping to distribute bottled water to residents throughout the town of 1,300 residents.

Fire officials said in a Facebook post that water crews were working at all hours to try to isolate and repair leaks. The department said that there remains enough water pressure to operate fire hydrants if they are needed for firefighting.

The mayor acknowledged in an interview with WMC-TV that the town has had water issues in the past due to a system that needs updates.

“Honestly, we have a bad system. Nobody took care of it for a long time and everything is falling apart,” Mayor Eddie Noeman said.

“The whole town has been without water for five days,” said exasperated Mason resident Christina Ray. The fire department is handing out water but limiting it to one case per day, per household. That’s not enough for her family, which was collecting snow to flush the toilets.

“It’s hard to cook. It’s hard to flush toilets. It’s hard to do dishes. We can’t wash laundry,” she said.

Ray managed to find the last seven gallons of water at a grocery store, she said, but if her 15-year-old daughter has school on Monday, Ray is considering getting a hotel room in a neighboring town so that she can take a shower and get clean clothes.

With warmer temperatures predicted this week, Ray has another worry.

“I have not been sleeping very well because I’ve been wondering if my pipes are going to burst,” she said.

The continued cold weather is also responsible for at least 25 deaths in Tennessee, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. Nationally, winter storms this month have claimed at least 67 lives around the U.S., many involving hypothermia or road accidents.

Elsewhere, freezing rain, sleet and high wind gusts later Sunday would make traveling in parts of Kansas and Oklahoma particularly treacherous, the National Weather Service said. Wind chills in Iowa made it feel like minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 7 degrees Celsius) in some parts.

But the end of subzero temperatures — which blasted into the U.S. on Friday — was in sight for parts of the country. The daily high temperatures in Iowa’s capital of Des Moines, for example, were expected to stay above freezing starting Monday.

“With no additional replenishment of arctic air from Canada, a steady warm-up is in store for the mid-section of the country,” the weather service said.

In western New York, Buffalo Bills fans were getting ready for another home playoff game Sunday evening against the Kansas City Chiefs, with temperatures forecast around 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 7 degrees Celsius), winds around 10 mph (16 kph) and a slight chance of snow showers. On Friday and Saturday, hundreds of people showed up at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park to help shovel snow out of the stands for the second week in a row, earning $20 an hour.

The Erie County Sheriff’s Office was urging fans Sunday to not throw snowballs in the stadium or trespass on the new stadium construction site.

On the West Coast, more freezing rain was forecast in the Columbia River Gorge and the area was expected to remain near or below freezing through at least Sunday night. Trees and power lines already coated with ice could topple if they get more, the National Weather Service warned.

“Stay safe out there over the next several days as our region tries to thaw out,” the weather service said. “Chunks of falling ice will remain a hazard as well.”

Associated Press writers David Collins in Hartford, Connecticut, and Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Florida, contributed to this story.

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