Residents of an east Arkansas town have been without running water for the past two weeks after the state was hit by below-freezing temperatures, and the outage has forced them to line up for bottled water, fill up jugs or take showers at a truck brought in by the state.
The outage affected about 1,400 residents of Helena-West Helena. It is the second in the past year for the town 52 miles southwest of Memphis, Tennessee, located along the Mississippi River. The town faced a similar crisis last summer, when the same part of the city was without water in June.
Officials are racing to fix leaks throughout the city and restore water to residents, but they say they’re facing the longer term challenge of overhauling a system with an infrastructure that dates back decades.
“The issues we’re facing now have been building up for decades,” said John Edwards, a former state lawmaker and executive director of an industrial park who the mayor tapped to assist in responding to the crisis.
It is the latest U.S. community to face water shortages or other issues from aging infrastructure, as questions linger about how it will pay for long-term repairs.
The outages are affecting one of two water systems for Helena-West Helena, which was two separate cities until 2006. One of the wells serving the system failed during recent winter weather, under pressure from leaks and dripping pipes.
“It’s hit or miss,” Russell Hall, director of the Phillips County Office of Emergency Management said. “One house might have halfway decent pressure, and another house might have a trickle, depending on gravity and other things.”
The state National Guard has brought in a water truck to provide potable water, and a 16-stall portable shower for residents to use. Each day, the distribution sites attract a steady line of people filling up on water for use in their homes.
“It’s very difficult when you get up in the morning and you can’t take a bath, you can’t shower,” Mack Williams, 59, said as he picked up bottled water from a site. “You’ve got five, six, seven, eight people in the house.”
Gerald Jennings has been using a yellow bucket to catch rainwater to boil. He also uses it to bathe and flush toilets like others are doing.
“I’ve got to use what nature gave me, which was the rain,” the 58-year-old retiree said as he stood outside his home. “We got lucky that it was raining during this particular time.”
Laprece Stayton, a 40-year-old beautician, also was picking up water at a distribution site. Though she said she had running water at her house, it was low pressure and coming out “a little yellow, a little discolored.” She’s boiling water or not using it at all.
She said she was doing OK and not as badly affected as others. She did not blame any single person for the issues.
“It’s no one’s fault,” she said. “If you have a car, you can’t keep a car for 60 years without having wear and tear on it. Pipes are going to have wear and tear on them.”
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders last week urged a state commission to expedite a $100,000 emergency loan for the city to refurbish two wells and replace valves in its water system. The Arkansas Natural Resources Commission has since approved what is the second $100,000 loan the panel has issued the city since last year’s crisis.
Sanders called the loan “part of my administration’s larger efforts to help the city refurbish its water system and prevent future system failures.”
Hall, the county’s Emergency Management director, said he doesn’t know when the water will be restored. He said community residents have been generally understanding.
“I’m sure that people are frustrated,” Hall said. “Three-quarters of my 911 dispatchers do not have water at their house right now. They have to come to work and still have to go through with their daily lives.”
The bigger question facing the city is how much the long-term system fix will cost, and who will pay for it. Edwards said about $5 million will be needed to repair the failed well and make fixes to the water plant and other wells — and keep the city from another crisis months from now.
The city’s water outage comes as other towns face problems with their aging water infrastructures. Several other cities faced water shortages in Arkansas during the winter storm. And in neighboring Tennessee, the rural town of Mason was without water for a week after freezing temperatures broke pipes and caused leaks in its neglected system.
Residents in three rural communities in far eastern Kentucky along the Virginia border also have been without water for more than a week after freezing weather. And Mississippi’s capital city, Jackson, has endured multiple water problems in recent years that caused people to go days or weeks without safe running water.
“What’s happening here can and will happen in other places,” said Edwards, the director of an industrial park assisting during the water crisis. “We’ve got a lot of utilities in this state that have aging problems, and I hope this will be a cautionary tale for what officials in other communities can do to avoid being in this circumstance.”