Roughly a quarter of Louisiana’s population was still without access to clean drinking water as of Monday, a week after a winter storm tore through the state, exposing fragile infrastructure in several of the state’s largest cities.
Historic levels of ice, snow and frigid temperatures blew through parts of the state last week, knocking out power to multiple water systems. In some places, water mains and pipes at business and homes burst because of the freezing temperatures.
The power issues and burst pipes -- along with increased use from residents dripping faucets to avoid problems -- caused water outages or pressure to drop below safe levels, prompting boil advisories affecting more than 1.1 million customers as of Monday morning.
“People always worry about their electrical power, but you can live without electricity,” said Dick Gremillion, the Calcasieu Parish director of homeland security and emergency preparedness. “You can’t live without water.”
Local and state officials resorted to trucking water to hospital systems and dialysis centers, which desperately needed water to function. Mike Steele, spokesperson for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Preparedness, said five bulk water tankers were sent to hospitals in Caddo and Rapides parishes. Three tankers were resupplying dialysis treatment centers in northwest Louisiana.
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The water issues hammered a wide swath of the state. As of Monday, three of Louisiana’s 10 largest cities -- Shreveport, Alexandria and Lake Charles -- were under boil advisories. The Baton Rouge and New Orleans regions were largely spared from the water problems.
Shreveport set a record low temperature on Feb. 16 of 1 degree Farhenheit, and large swaths of the state saw below freezing temperatures for days as interstates slicked with ice shut down. West Monroe was under a boil advisory Monday and Monroe officials reported low pressure there too.
Lake Charles’ woes were just the latest crisis for a town besieged by a string of natural disasters over the past six months.
With many of the city’s businesses and homes still abandoned from Hurricanes Delta and Laura last year, water pipe breaks went undetected, Gremillion said. Plus, at the behest of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, Entergy turned off power to much of the city as part of a broader pattern of rolling blackouts. The shutoff included the water system, which lost its pressure because officials didn’t have enough warning to turn on generator power before the lights went off, Gremillion said.
More than 100 people -- including city employees, outside contractors and even postal service workers -- scoured the city in the wake of the winter weather to look for leaks at private properties, said Katie Harrington, a spokesperson for Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter. That effort revealed more than 2,000 leaks, she said. That’s about the same number of leaks the city’s crews had to address in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm that tore the city apart in August.
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“This recent severe winter weather in many ways was as impactful to the city as a major hurricane,” Hunter said in a Facebook video Sunday.
John Hawkins, Entergy Louisiana’s vice president of distribution operations, said in a statement the utility makes “every reasonable effort” to notify customers about outages because of load shedding -- the term for purposeful blackouts aimed at keeping the grid from crashing. Entergy was given a short window of time to respond to the request in this instance, he said.
“As we’ve shared, load shedding is a last resort and may be a result of extreme or emergent issues requiring immediate action. When the order to execute outages by MISO is received, the execution of those outages follows quickly and is necessary,” He said. “As a result of this event, we are looking at every opportunity to improve our communications with our customers.”
There were similar complaints about a lack of warning in other areas affected by rolling blackouts, including parts of New Orleans.
In Shreveport, more than 200,000 customers remained under a boil advisory Monday. Mayor Adrian Perkins said in an interview he expects the city will restore the water system by Tuesday. Still, it’s possible the city will remain under a boil advisory through Friday as it works with the Louisiana Department of Health to ensure the water is safe to drink, he said.
More than 50 main water lines around the city burst, Perkins said. Hospitals in the region were still dealing with low pressure as of Monday, and dialysis centers came “very, very close” to evacuating patients. Dialysis treatment requires hundreds of liters of water for each patient, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Perkins said the extent of the damage to the city’s water system surprised him, but he knew Shreveport’s infrastructure was susceptible, with old, fragile pipes underlying much of the city.
Crawfish, much like people, have not taken well to the cold weather blanketing the state.
“It’s aging infrastructure and a once-in-a-century storm,” Perkins said. “Mother Nature just beat up on our infrastructure.”
State and local officials set up six distribution sites and handed out more than 700,000 bottles of water in the Shreveport area, Perkins said, and local police and sheriff’s departments were delivering water to the eldery and disabled.
Perkins praised John Bel Edwards’ administration for its work coordinating the response to the disaster. Still, he decried the lack of attention Louisiana is receiving, and worried it will lead to fewer private donations and resources as the state recovers.
Texas has taken the vast majority of the spotlight, after its independent electrical grid crashed, leaving millions in the dark. The storm also roiled its water system, as pipes thawed and burst and millions were told to boil their water before using it.
“I’ve got 200,000-plus citizens on my water system that will go without drinkable water for pretty much two weeks,” Perkins said. “We’ve been a footnote in the national conversation.”
Perkins groused to the Shreveport Times that "Louisiana has been treated like the stepchild of the nation during this disaster, and Shreveport has been treated like the stepchild of Louisiana."
For Alexandria, the second bout of icy weather that blew through the city Wednesday was the main culprit for the city’s lingering problems. More than 100,000 customers in Rapides Parish were under a boil advisory Monday.
Jim Smilie, a spokesperson for the city, said the second winter blast knocked out power to the city’s water system, which takes water from the Kisatchie National Forest. At the same time, residents were increasing their use of water by dripping faucets to prevent frozen pipes, and pipes elsewhere froze.
The city has been refilling its water tanks, but the water pressure still dropped below the threshold that triggers a boil advisory. That set in motion a regulatory process the system must pass before the advisory is lifted, an effort to ensure water is safe for drinking.
Smilie said the water system’s backup generators couldn’t produce enough power to keep the pressure from plummeting. Since then, the city has distributed thousands of bottles of water to residents.
“I’ve lived here nearly 40 years now and I don’t ever remember anything like this,” he said.