HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. (AP) — 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 affecting about 1,400 residents of Helena-West Helena is the second in the past year for the small town 52 miles (84 kilometers) 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.
Local 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’s been tapped by the mayor to assist in responding to the water crisis.
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 the winter weather that hit the state, 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 was brought in for residents to use. Each day, distribution sites for the water have seen a steady line of people filling up on water to use for 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 county distribution site. “You’ve got five, six, seven, eight people in the house, it’s very difficult.”
Gerald Jennings has been using a yellow bucket to catch rainwater to boil, then use to bathe and flush toilets. He said he knows of others doing the same thing.
“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, was picking up water at a distribution site. She said she had running water at her house, but 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 because she feels she is not affected as badly as other people and that 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 the city’s 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 citizens in general have been understanding of the emergency water distribution process.
“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 fix to its water system will cost, and who will pay for it. Edwards said it would cost about $5 million to fix the failed well and make fixes to the water plant and other wells that would help keep the city from landing in the same crisis in six months.
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 have also been without water for more than a week after freezing weather.
“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.”
DeMillo reported from Little Rock, Ark. Associated Press writer Rebecca Reynolds contributed to this report from Louisville, Kentucky.
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