HOUSTON – 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 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 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 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.
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.