This week's big chill is draining water supplies in towns across South Louisiana, leaving a hospital and a nursing home in Ascension Parish dry for much of Wednesday and prompting local authorities in several communities to warn people to boil their water before drinking it.
The primary cause, officials said, was three nights of hard freezes that had residents turning their water on at night to prevent their pipes from freezing. But pipes burst anyway, and the constantly running water, combined with weather-related system failures, led to water use that was far above average across the state. Those conditions caused low pressure in the systems, which forced boil advisories and water shutoffs, officials said.
The big chill isn't over quite yet. Freezing temperatures are expected to continue through Friday night in the longest such cold snap since 2010, according to the National Weather Service.
In Donaldsonville, residents facing water shutoffs rushed to buy water from local grocery stores, while a hospital and nursing home were left without water for seven hours. The problem, parish officials said, was that people dripped too much water from their faucets.
In St. Helena Parish, a water manager seeking to stem the flow drove from meter to meter, checking for high usage that could indicate a broken pipe or faucets left running full blast.
Grappling with low pressure in East Feliciana, a water district implored customers on its website to use less, saying the system would not be able to maintain water service during the freeze if people did not slow the drip-drip-drip.
"In order to avoid this potential outage, we are asking customers to comply immediately," the East Feliciana Rural Water System wrote in an online special bulletin.
Statewide, water boil advisories tripled Monday and Tuesday, according to Amanda Laughlin, chief engineer for the state department of health and hospitals.
She said Wednesday morning there had been 20 to 30 boil advisories issued in areas ranging from Lafayette to St. Tammany.
During a boil advisory, the health department recommends people bring water to a boil for a full minute before consuming it.
The cause, she said, was mainly low water pressure in the water systems, which increases the risk for risk for bacteria to enter the pipes.
"You issue an advisory in case there may be bacteria in the water that is harmful," Laughlin said.
Before an advisory can be lifted, the system must bring water pressure back up, add in the chlorine-based disinfectant and submit tests to the health department, she said.
The problems have been especially acute in small water systems, which are often privately held, said Timmy Lemoine, who provides technical assistance for the Louisiana Rural Water Association.
Smaller systems typically store less water, meaning if usage is up, they cannot meet demand. Plus, some use thin two- to four-inch pipes to carry water to customers. Those pipes are susceptible to freezing, he said.
"Louisiana is just not prepared for severe cold, like we have had the last few days," Lemoine said.
Craig Greene, public service commissioner for the Baton Rouge region, called the recent freezes an "extraordinary circumstance" that did not indicate any particular problems in the private water companies he regulates.
"If we head into the teens on a regular basis, we would think, is there a way we can prevent this?" Greene said. "From a public standpoint, I think this is more force majeure than, we have a problem with the way we regulate water."
In the Donaldsonville area, residents were rushing to grocery stores to buy water, after parish officials shut off their supply from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday.
Among the affected customers were Prevost Memorial Hospital, Chateau D'Ville Rehab and Retirement Center and Fresenius Dialysis Center.
Todd Landry, owner of Midway grocery in downtown Donaldsonville, said the demand for water was heavier than in the run-up to a major hurricane, as his customers were caught off guard with the loss of service for their “morning routine.”
“This was just people woke up, and they didn’t have water,” Landry said, comparing that to the several days of warning for a major storm.
Monica Turner, 41, also of Donaldsonville, was also buying water at Midway after a morning shift at a large retailer.
She said she used bottled water that she happened to have home early Wednesday morning to brush her teeth for work in Gonzales but waited for a restroom break once at work.
Parish Utilities of Ascension partially restored service to about 80 percent of its 3,000 customers by Wednesday afternoon and expected to have water to all customers by 4 a.m. Thursday, parish public information officer Martin McConnell said in a news release. A boil advisory remains in effect until further notice.
Parish government officials said they shut off water service to the west Ascension city due to low pressure caused by line breaks and customers leaving their faucets running in attempt to keep them from freezing in frigid temperatures.
"Our employees have been diligently working nonstop to restore water service to Donaldsonville," Parish President Kenny Matassa said in the statement.
The parish distributed drinking water Wednesday until 8 p.m. Wednesday. Matassa also encouraged people to check their neighbors houses for leaks, especially if their owners are away.
The cold temperatures and high usage have also caused various equipment failures, which have exacerbated water shortages.
About 600 customers in Tangipahoa Parish, in an area between Tickfaw and Hammond, are under boil advisory after a well pump burned out, said French Settlement Water Company President Billy Edrington. The company has been unable to restore water pressure there, in part due to increase usage.
In the town of Livingston, a pressure valve that tells a pump to turn on when water tower levels get low, froze Monday, causing low pressures and a continued boil advisory for 3,487 customers, said Mayor David McCreary.
The much larger Baton Rouge Water Company has fared better, despite huge increases in water usage. Chief Administrative Officer Hays Owen said customers are receiving water at normal pressure, though residents used 94.4 million gallons on Tuesday, up from 60 million gallons on a normal day.
From Monday through Wednesday afternoon, 168 customers to have their water shut off due to busted pipes, Owen said.
But in New Orleans, city officials on Wednesday urged residents to cut back on how long they keep faucets running to prevent burst pipes, fearing a pressure drop that could potentially hurt firefighting abilities.
Joe Sensebe, interim director at the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, said residents trying to prevent pipes from freezing need only run one faucet — the one farthest from their property's main stop valve — and only when temperatures actually hit the freezing point, not all day. Most residents' stop valves are located near the front of the property. The stream should be "pencil lead thin," which is described as no more than 1/16 of an inch wide.
Some water managers are taking desperate measures in light of the continuing cold.
Dale Stelly, system manager for Vermilion Parish Waterworks District No. 1, deliberately reduced pressures to conserve dangerously low supplies, causing a boil water advisory for the district's 7,100 customers.
This freeze has caused more problems than previous ones, because it has lasted several days, he noted.
The district’s 32-foot tanks are typically filled with 29 feet of water, and as of noon Wednesday they were down to 10 feet, Stelly said. If the seven tanks drop to 5 feet, the district will be forced to shut down the system, he said.
“At 5 feet we have no other choice,” Stelly said. “It dismantles the pumps, the pumps will quit."
John Yent, manager of Water Works District 2 of St. Helena, spent Wednesday running from meter to meter, checking for ones with apparently excessive use, which could indicate a line break or gushing faucets.
Yent said the 2,500-customer system's reserves are down to about half, and the system is using more on most cycles than it is taking in.
"We’re going to make every effort to not lost the system," Yent said. "It doesn't mean were going to win the battle, but we’re going to try."
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Advocate staff writers Ben Myers, Jessica Williams and Terry L. Jones contributed to this story.