This week's frigid temperatures are putting a heavy strain on local infrastructure across the New Orleans metro area, with two local school districts planning to shut down Thursday and city officials worried that too many residents are running their faucets at once in order to keep pipes from bursting.
The head of Jefferson Parish public school system said that several consecutive days worth of freezing temperatures had "taxed" the heating systems in some of its school buildings, leading to the closure.
In St. John the Baptist Parish, classes were canceled because of trouble maintaining water pressure. Parish officials have asked residents to conserve water and eliminate “non-essential uses until further notice.”
Orleans Parish was grappling with the same problem. Joe Sensebe, interim director of the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, called a news conference to explain that residents trying to prevent pipes from freezing need run only one faucet — the one farthest from their property's main stop valve — and only when temperatures actually fall below freezing, not all day.
Most residents' stop valves are located near the front of the property. Sensebe said the stream should be "pencil lead thin," which is described as no more than 1/16 of an inch wide.
Speaking outside the S&WB water plant on South Claiborne Avenue, Sensebe said the utility typically produces about 120 million to 125 million gallons of tap water a day but has been pumping out closer to 155 million gallons during the cold spell.
With demand as high as it is, pressure in the city’s pipes has dropped below normal, though not to levels that would allow dangerous bacteria to get into the system.
The agency ordinarily maintains pressure of about 72 pounds per square inch. On Wednesday, pressure stood at about 62 PSI, officials said. If it falls below 15 PSI, officials would have to ask residents to boil their tap water before using it, something they don't expect to happen.
New Orleans Fire Superintendent Tim McConnell emphasized how critical water pressure is for fire prevention, both in streetside hydrants and in the sprinkler systems in large buildings.
“If we had a severe drop in water pressure due to people running water, it would absolutely affect us in the long run at a major fire,” McConnell said. “For extended periods of firefighting, lower water pressure would affect us.”
Officials haven't had as much trouble in St. Tammany Parish. David DeGeneres, Mandeville’s director of public works, said he’s seen a slight drop in water pressure but nothing to cause concern.
In Covington, Mayor Mike Cooper said he doesn’t expect any problem from residents keeping their water running, as long as they don't go overboard. “We know our residents are trickling their pipes, but we haven’t received a noticeable drop in pressure for our services,” Cooper said.
Jefferson Parish has pumped twice as much water through its system during the freeze as it would normally, maintaining system pressure between 54 and 60 PSI, according to Salvador Maffei Jr., the parish's director of water.
Maffei said the parish has been pumping water constantly from its treatment plants though a system of eight elevated towers and six ground storage tanks.
"We should not have any problems beyond the normal line breaks," he said. "We are trying to keep the roadways free of standing water as much as possible so that it doesn’t freeze and create a road hazard."
The National Weather Service on Wednesday warned that the New Orleans area could see a few more nights of freezing temperatures, with much of the country east of the Rocky Mountains under a “stubborn arctic air mass” for the rest of the week.
Parts of the South have already experienced unusually brutal conditions. Tallahassee, Florida, got its first measurable accumulation of snow since 1989. Parts of Georgia got more than 4 inches.
The Northeast was bracing for a whiteout, with New York City expected to get 4 to 6 inches of snow Wednesday night.
At least three southeast Louisiana parishes are asking residents to conserve water during the current cold snap.
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