US hospitals confront water shortages in winter storm aftermath

The icy blast ruptured water mains, knocked out power to millions of utility customers and contributed to at least 76 deaths — half of which occurred in Texas

US hospitals confront water shortages in winter storm aftermath

Volunteers deliver water to local residents in vehicles at Butler Stadium after an unprecedented winter storm in Houston, Texas, on February 21, 2021. REUTERS

Houston, February 22

Hospitals across the South grappled with water shortages as the region carried on with recovery efforts in the wake of a devastating winter storm, and the weather offered a balmy respite — temperatures as high as the mid-60s.

At the height of the storm on Sunday, hospitals were left scrambling to care for patients amid record cold, snow and ice that battered parts of the country more accustomed to going through winter with light jackets and short sleeves.

The icy blast ruptured water mains, knocked out power to millions of utility customers and contributed to at least 76 deaths — half of which occurred in Texas.  At least seven people died in Tennessee and four in Portland, Oregon.

A rural hospital in Anahuac, Texas, about 50 miles east of Houston, lost both water and power.

Also read: Texas freeze led to release of tons of air pollutants as refineries shut

William Kiefer, CEO of Chambers Health, which runs the hospital along with two clinics and a wellness centre, said the facilities resorted to backup generators and water from a 275-gallon storage tank. They refilled it three times using water from a swimming pool in the wellness centre.

On Monday, when temperatures were in the teens, a woman about to give birth walked into the hospital after she could not make it through the ice and snow to her hospital in suburban Houston. Emergency room staff delivered the baby safely, Kiefer said.

Houston Methodist Hospital spokeswoman Gale Smith said water had been restored at two of the system’s community hospitals. The system was dealing with an influx of dialysis patients after their local centres closed, she added.

After temperatures plunged as much as 40 degrees below normal last week, the forecast for the Houston area called for a high of 65 degrees (18 degrees Celsius) on Sunday. The city lifted its boil-water advisory on Sunday afternoon.

Still, hundreds of cars lined up at NRG Stadium to receive food and water from the Houston Food Bank. The bank also delivered supplies to vulnerable citizens, including seniors and the disabled.

Memphis, Tennessee, saw 10 inches of snow last week. Memphis, Light, Gas and Water issued a boil-water advisory on Thursday out of concern that low water pressure caused by problems at aging pumping stations and water main ruptures could lead to contamination.

About 2,60,000 homes and businesses were under the advisory. Hospitals and nursing homes have been forced to switch to bottled water. The Tennessee National Guard was supplying St Francis Hospital with water.

Nearby Baptist Memorial Hospital has taken on some of St Francis’ patients, particularly those who need dialysis, said Dr Jeff Wright, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Baptist. That hospital had a water purification system for dialysis and had water reserves for tasks such as cooking and bathing patients, he said.

Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare also reported problems at some of its Memphis-area facilities due to water pressure problems and the boil advisory. The system is using tanker trucks to boost water pressure and relying on help from facilities that have not been affected.

City officials planned to distribute water bottles at several locations Sunday. Grocery stores struggled to keep shelves stocked with bottled water. Many restaurants remained closed.

Flights resumed Saturday at Memphis International Airport after everything was grounded on Friday because of water pressure problems. Some problems still lingered but airport officials set up temporary restrooms.

The White House said about a third of the COVID-19 vaccine doses delayed by the storm were delivered over the weekend.

The weather created a backlog of about six million doses as power outages closed some vaccination centres and icy weather stranded vaccine in shipping hubs. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told ABC’s “This Week” that about two million of those doses have gone out.

In Nashville, Tennessee, local COVID-19 task force leader Dr Alex Jahangir said more than 2,300 seniors and teachers got vaccinated Saturday as the city resumed offering shots after days of treacherous weather.

Due to the wintry mess, local health officials last week vaccinated more than 500 people with doses that otherwise would have expired, including hundreds at homeless shelters and residents of a historically Black neighbourhood who were mostly seniors with underlying health conditions.

Nearly 2,30,000 customers across the South were still without power as of Sunday, according to PowerOutage.us, a website that tracks power outages. The largest blackouts were in Mississippi, Texas, West Virginia, Kentucky and Oregon. Each state had more than 30,000 customers without power.

President Joe Biden is eager to visit Texas, which was hit especially hard by the weather, Psaki said. Biden hopes to travel to the state this week but “doesn’t want to take away resources” from the response, she said. Biden declared a major disaster in Texas on Saturday.

Texas Republican Michael McCaul told CNN’s “State of the Union” that federal disaster relief could be used to repair burst pipes and flood damage and to help Texans hit with skyrocketing energy bills. AP

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