Hospitals confront water shortages in winter storm aftermath

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

At the height of last week’s storm, hospitals scrambled to care for patients amid record cold temperatures, 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 (80 kilometers) east of Houston, lost both water and power.

William Kiefer, CEO of Chambers Health, which runs the hospital along with two clinics and a wellness center, 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 center.

When temperatures were in the teens last Monday, 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.

“It would have taken her another two hours to get to (the suburban Houston hospital) if our facility wasn’t there,” he said. “We can probably assume she would have had the baby in her car and the snow. Not a good situation.”

Water was restored Thursday, and operations had returned to normal on Sunday, he said. The health system plans to look into installing more sophisticated backup systems, he said.

Houston Methodist Hospital spokeswoman Gale Smith said water had been restored at two community hospitals in the system, which was dealing with an influx of dialysis patients after their local centers 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.

About 30,000 Texans were still without power due to downed power lines and other equipment failures. Gov. Greg Abbott said during a news conference that he expected all service to be restored by Sunday night or Monday.

Abbott also said he was concerned about the threat of massive electric bills after wholesale energy prices skyrocketed while power plants were offline. He said it would be the “top priority” for the Legislature, and he vowed not to end the legislative session until lawmakers ensure that the state’s power grid is retrofitted to handle extreme winter and summer weather.

Nearly 230,000 customers across the South were still without power as of Sunday, according to PowerOutage.us, a website that tracks power outages. Other large blackouts were in Mississippi, West Virginia, Kentucky and Oregon.

Memphis, Tennessee, saw 10 inches of snow last week. Memphis, Light, Gas & 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. The advisory was still in place Sunday; utility officials said they did not know when they might lift it.

About 260,000 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 took 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 has a water purification system for dialysis and has water reserves for tasks such as cooking and bathing patients, he said.

“We have gallon jugs of water that were already stocked and ready to roll on day one,” Wright 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.

In Washington, 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 6 million doses as power outages closed some vaccination centers and icy weather stranded vaccine in shipping hubs. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told ABC’s “This Week” that about 2 million of those doses have gone out.

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.

“He is . . . very mindful of the fact that it’s not a light footprint for a president to travel to a disaster area.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that Biden can come anytime.

“We certainly would welcome him,” Turner said.

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

McCaul also criticized fellow Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s decision to take his family on vacation amid the crisis.

“When a crisis hits my state, I’m there,” McCaul said. “I’m not going to go on some vacation. I know Mr. Cruz called it a mistake, and he’s owned up to that. But I think that was a big mistake.”

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Mattise reported from Nashville, Tennessee. Sainz reported from Memphis, Tennessee. Associated Press writers Hope Yen in Austin, Texas, and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

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