You know all those jokes about Mississippi and indoor plumbing? Well, this past week, they were all true.
The recent cold weather that blanketed the entire country struck Jackson, Mississippi, too. We had roughly 60 consecutive hours below freezing, which is very unusual for the deep South. The result: water mains all over the city, which were very old to start with and not buried deep enough to resist persistent freezing temperatures, froze and burst. More than 130 mains broke, knocking out water pressure over a huge swath of the city. Most relavently for me, it affected our hospital, as well as two hospitals nearby.
University Hospital, run by the University of Mississippi Medical School, has its own well, and was the only hospital in our area that was unaffected. If, that is, by unaffected you don’t count the flood of patients that showed up there because everyone knew the other hospitals didn’t have water.
As for our hospital, we just did without.
Surely, you say, your hospital must have some kind of water supply. You can’t be completely without water. That would be unthinkable.
Unthinkable, maybe, but also a fact. My office is on the sixth floor, and for three days, when you turned on any faucet or flushed any toilet, nothing happened. There were armies of Port-O-Pottys in the parking lot. (The doctors had a separate temporary trailer that was air conditioned and heated.) All surgeries except emergencies were on hold. Most procedures were on hold, too. The myriad of medical clinics that surround our facility shut down from lack of water.
I had a patient who had heart surgery cancelled twice because of the lack of water. It had never occurred to me that heart surgery is dependent on common tap water, but it is. Doctors and nurses scrub for the surgery using tap water, and tap water is used for the initial cleaning of surgical instruments before final sterilization. The hospital could have cleaned everything with the sterile water it had on hand, but this would have rapidly used up sterile supplies. Eventually two tanker trucks sidled up to the back entrance to supply fresh water for emergencies, and a few of the most critical cases went forward. Non-critical patients often went home, scheduled to return the next week.
By Saturday, low water pressure returned to the sixth floor, but the water was only approved for cleaning. It will be a few days yet before it can be declared potable.
This is the whole infrastructure story come home to roost. For years, engineering experts have been warning Americans about the neglect of our national infrastructure. While we blithely cut taxes and live off credit cards, the bridges, dams, and roads we built 50-100 years ago are crumbling. Eventually, if we do not step up and make the necessary repairs, our neglect will come back to haunt us.
Like maybe now?
The mayor of Jackson says it will cost $300 million to bring the water system in Jackson up to date. In the last 20 years the city has spent about $100 million modernizing. That effort began after a similar freeze in 1989 knocked out the water system for 5 days.
Yes, that’s right. This has happened before. And after the first time no one bothered to take the steps to make sure there was no repeat. Not in 20 years. It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder why we even bother having a government at all. Must be because we like getting junk mail.
Simply speaking as a citizen, I understand that no municipal water system can be 100% reliable. But it should be close enough that, in almost all cases, the city can supply water to major facilities like hospitals and nursing homes within 48 hours or so. That is not too much to ask of a city that is not in an earthquake, hurricane, or wildfire zone.
By Monday, we expect operations to return to normal at our hospital. I can't complain about the pace of the repairs, which was quicker than I would have predicted. On the other hand, the fast repairs are nothing but patches. Jackson's water system is still as antiquated, and vulnerable to freezing, as it was two weeks ago.
This week’s experience was a lesson, at least for me, in how dependent our critical systems are on infrastructure that we stupidly assume will always work and will never break down, no matter how intently we neglect it.
I don’t think my eyes will ever glaze over when a politician utters the word infrastructure again.