Motorists wait in a mile-long line on Northside Drive in Jackson on Feb. 19, 2021 for a water giveaway at the Food Depot grocery store after thousands of residents in Jackson were left without water after a historic winter storm. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

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On the week of Valentine’s Day, 2021, winter storms Uri and Viola incapacitated utilities in Mississippi and across the country. Southern cities and utility companies were especially unprepared, lacking shelter for their distribution systems that left customers without water and powers for extended periods after the storms.

In preparing for the possibility of more frequent winter storms, Mississippi’s Public Service Commission on Thursday released the results of a year-long investigation into the state’s public utility infrastructure. The PSC regulates rates and services from telecommunications, electric, gas, water and sewer utilities, but has no authority for appropriating funds to those utilities.

“One year ago this week, Mississippi was in the grip of historic winter storms,” Central District Public Service Commissioner Brent Bailey said. “The combination of freezing rain, snow and days of below freezing temperatures brought road travel to a halt, caused nearly 200,000 customers to lose power, caused more than 80 water systems to have low or no water pressure, and some telecommunications were even disrupted.

“For a few days it seemed almost as if the entire state was paralyzed.”

In the wide-ranging report, which also looked at recent damages from hurricanes, thunderstorms and tornadoes, the PSC looked at the most common vulnerabilities among utilities and ways to address them.

Although the report didn’t include specific funding amounts, it did recommend more proactive communication between lawmakers and utilities to discuss mitigation investments. Between the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Bills, Bailey said lawmakers could help upgrade aging systems, especially water and sewer plants.

The state health department reported that 79 water utilities issued boil water notices after last year’s winter storms. Municipal water and sewer plants suffer from a range of issues, such as old piping and pump stations, and a lack of maintenance. Rural water associations have reported undersized water lines, and aging treatment plants and wells. According to a presentation to lawmakers, Mississippi’s average water system loss from ruptures and leaks is 35%, compared to 18% nationally.

As far as specific fixes, the PSC’s recommendations include:

  • Utilities adopting and updating emergency response plans
  • Better vegetation management, including using technology such as drones or satellites to identify where to trim trees that could fall onto power lines
  • Replacing wood utility poles with steel or concrete
  • Creating fuel redundancy and diversity, which would include exploring options for increasing natural gas storage, as well as evaluating the feasibility of alternative fuel sources. A majority of Mississippi’s energy consumption comes from natural gas, which was in limited supply during the storm.
  • Collaborating with other state agencies to enforce weatherization standards for water and wastewater plants

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Alex Rozier, from New York City, is Mississippi Today’s data and environment reporter. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Open Secrets, and on NBC.com. In 2019, Alex was a grantee through the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines program, which supported his coverage around the impact of climate change on Mississippi fisheries.