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Mississippi Residents, Jackson Water System Vulnerable As ‘Scary’ Freeze Arrives

A freeze map of Mississippi overlayed on a photo of a frozen water pipe
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency is warning that the entire state is at risk of freezing weather starting overnight on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022, and lasting throughout the weekend to Christmas Day with risks of frostbite, hypothermia and damage to infrastructure like water pipes. The weather is raising concerns in the capital city about continued vulnerabilities in Jackson’s water system. Map by MSEMA, Photo by Nadiia Ganzhyi on Unsplash

Temperatures across Mississippi are expected to drop into the teens and even single digits overnight Thursday with highs below freezing in some areas on Friday, raising concerns about safety and infrastructure statewide, including the capital city’s water system. Forecasts say temperatures will remain in the 30s Fahrenheit and below throughout the weekend.

“We always want people to remember the four p’s of winter weather preparedness: your people, your pets, your pipes and your plants,” said Mississippi Emergency Management Agency Chief Communications Officer Malary White. She said to bring pets inside and check on elderly neighbors, vulnerable friends and family members.

In Jackson, officials are worried about the effect the winter weather could have on the water system. Earlier this year, capital city residents lost access to safe drinking water for weeks due to a combination of staffing shortages and flooding. But in 2021, a winter freeze led to citywide outages that left residents without running water for up to a month.

Ted Henifin, the interim third-party manager who took charge of Jackson’s water system several weeks ago, said winterization work and other “temporary” efforts have helped make the City’s water plants more resilient, expressing confidence that the plants were better prepared for the coming freeze. But Jackson’s pipes, which are in desperate need of repairs and upgrades, pose greater challenges.

Congress could soon approve $600 million to help the City restore its ailing water system, but even with the funds, those efforts could take years. Meanwhile, Jackson’s water system and its citizens remain vulnerable.

“When we get to the distribution system, the pipes under the city? Yeah, I’m not feeling quite as good,” Henifin said. “Because there’s really not much else we can do to protect it in the short term from this freeze issue. I portray it like this: The Jacksonians that I’ve run into are all suffering from post-traumatic ice syndrome. It’s warranted, I understand, (even if) I haven’t lived through it personally.

“Some areas could go into the teens, maybe even the single digits. And not only that—we’re expecting very dangerous wind chills as well, enough to bring us down to negative temperatures. It’s very scary,” MEMA Chief Communications Officer Malary White said on Dec. 21, 2022. Graphic by MSEMA

“I’d love to be able to say that we know that the water distribution system is going to be totally protected from this coming ice. It’s not. There’s really little we can do to prepare for a deep freeze and with where we are today. But over the coming year, we’re going to continue to learn more about our system. We’re going to build things into it so that we should be able to survive deep freezes in a better fashion. We’ll be able to isolate those breaks faster. We’ll be able to respond faster.”

He said he has a contractor with five crews in place who he can call in to help on a contingency basis in the event that Jackson suffers breaks in its water system.

“I beg for Jacksonians to have just a little more patience for where we are. As much as we’d like to say that we’re there, the problem didn’t happen overnight, Nick. It didn’t even begin in your lifetime,” Henifin told reporter Nick Judin, who was born in the early 1990s. “This has been the culmination of issues over an entire generation.”

White told the Mississippi Free Press that pipes “are definitely going to be vulnerable all over Mississippi.”

“Some areas could go into the teens, maybe even the single digits. And not only that—we’re expecting very dangerous wind chills as well, enough to bring us down to negative temperatures. It’s very scary,” the MEMA chief communications officer said. “So wrap your pipes; go ahead and do that today. If you have outside faucets to your home, like where you plug in a water house, unscrew the water house, detach that and then wrap up those faucets.”

White offered other advice and safety tips to help Mississippians prepare for the weekend freeze:

  • “Make sure that if people are using space heaters that they’re plugged in directly to a wall outlet. Never use an extension cord or anything like that. Just as importantly, do not sleep with the space heater on. Don’t fall asleep with your electric blanket on either. That can lead to a house fire, and typically we do see fires break out around this time of year.”
  • “Make sure your people have enough blankets, warm clothes and things like that. It’s a holiday, and a lot of people will be traveling. Please, have a go-kit in your car: extra blankets, protein bars and water, things that can sustain you if heaven forbid you have an accident and you have to wait a period of time for someone to come and tow you.”
  • “For pets, if you’re cold, they’re cold. Bring them in. Make sure they have adequate sheltering as well. They’re just as important. … Make sure they have adequate food and water, because if it’s an outside dog especially, water can freeze. So you need to go in and replenish that.”
  • For wrapping pipes: “You can certainly go to the store and get your fancy faucet covers. You can do that if you need to. Or, you can get some old towels, some duct tape, wrap it around the faucet and then take a plastic bag and wrap it around the outside faucet as well.”
  • “If you’re going to be traveling and your house is going to be unattended during this time period, leave your cabinet doors open anywhere there are pipes inside. That way, the hot air in your home can still keep those pipes warm.”
  • “You also want to leave a little water dripping as well. And when we say leave water running, it doesn’t have to be full blast. Even a trickle or a drip is enough.”
  • “For places at risk of losing water service, you can always fill up your bathtub so you can use that water to flush your toilet.”

Twice in recent weeks, severe storms and multiple tornadoes struck throughout the state.

“In Mississippi, we don’t get a break from any type of severe weather,” White said. “We go from tornadoes to hurricanes, back to tornadoes, and now we have this winter weather. Always have a disaster go-kit with plenty of extra water—at least three days worth of water, and that means one gallon per person per day in your family. And if you also have a pet, you need to include your pet, too.”

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