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Deep freeze lingers in St. Louis area, workers busy fixing burst pipes

Deep freeze lingers in St. Louis area, workers busy fixing burst pipes

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ST. LOUIS — A wintry blast that arrived days earlier continued its hold on the area, causing water pipes to burst and keeping water companies working overtime.

“I think the worst is over,” meteorologist Ben Herzog said Wednesday.

A warmup is around the corner, according to the National Weather Service, with temperatures expected to top freezing on Saturday for the first time since Feb. 5. The high Wednesday was 19 degrees. Herzog said there was a chance for light snow overnight.

Meanwhile, a water main break Wednesday morning turned South Grand Boulevard near Forest Park Avenue into an icy mess, with water flowing onto eastbound Highway 40 (Interstate 64). Traffic was temporarily diverted at the Grand exit, but the highway reopened by 11 a.m. South Grand was still closed as of 7:30 p.m.

A crowd gathered at Art Hill in Forest Park on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021 to sled after Monday’s winter storm left up to nine inches of snow in some parts of the St. Louis area.

Hours after the break was first detected, crews were still battling to shut off valves to stop the flow of water. Extreme cold was making the work difficult.

The 36 inch-wide main broke sometime Tuesday, and that evening, “we started seeing water coming up,” said Curt Skouby, head of the St. Louis Water Division. “The situation got worse as the water froze and blocked some drains.”

Skouby said the break was near Chouteau Avenue, uphill from the highway, and water flowed down onto the eastbound lanes.

Repair of the line might wait, Skouby said, because it wasn’t affecting customers. City water workers were busy on Wednesday attending to other water pipe breaks also caused by the cold weather.

The sidewalk along Grand was frozen but that didn’t keep pedestrians away.

“I would have driven but my street isn’t much better than this,” said David James, who was walking to work at a St. Louis University bookstore. James carefully made his way along Grand while crews worked nearby to redirect water and remove ice.

Missouri American Water, the largest water utility in the region, said Wednesday that it has experienced 160 main breaks over the past week in St. Louis County alone. Metal pipes expand and contract with the temperature, which can cause breaks, particularly in the cold.

“This hasn’t been as bad as the polar vortex from a few years ago, but this has been a trying time,” said Samantha Williams, a company spokesperson.

She said that crews have been working for 10 days straight to address fixes. A precise number of affected customers was not immediately available, although Williams said that individual main breaks generally don’t affect a huge radius of water users, often disrupting service for up to a few dozen customers each.

Meanwhile, the city of St. Louis reported 18 water main breaks, 19 leaks and 32 fire hydrants that had gone out of service since the start of the cold spell. Those issues also tend to be localized, affecting one or two blocks nearby, said Skouby.

Water providers in the city and county said that normal service can typically be restored to customers affected by main breaks in about six to eight hours. Williams asked residents to keep pipes insulated and keep water flowing through them to avoid freezing.

The region is contending with unseasonably low temperatures.

The National Weather Service said snow in central and southeast Missouri was causing problems for motorists. There was low visibility and snow covered most roads in those areas. That snow was heading toward the St. Louis metro area, and forecasters expected up to an inch of snow. A winter weather advisory remains in effect.

The snow and cold caused Barnes-Jewish Hospital and other area hospitals to offer health workers incentives to stay at or near the hospital this week. “Stay pay,” as hospital officials call it, is a common practice in the health care industry during weather emergencies.

It “allows essential staff to be paid while they sleep on or near campus between shifts,” hospital spokesperson Kara Price-Shannon said. “This practice helps ensure continuity of care and services during uncertain conditions, while also helping to keep our staff safe if road conditions may make it difficult for them.”

Like many St. Louis area residents, nurse Gabrielle O’Hara headed to work Monday, but her car got stuck in the snow. O’Hara is a travel nurse from Chicago working at St. Louis University Hospital until April in the neuro unit, caring for patients who have suffered strokes and seizures.

O’Hara decided she would dig out her car later, pack an overnight bag in case she got stuck at the hospital, and walk the 15 minutes to work in single-digit weather. Luckily, a co-worker took her home when she finished her 12-hour shift Tuesday morning.

“We already had a number of people calling out. I would feel terrible for my co-workers if I didn’t go in,” said O’Hara.

Allison Rozum, a nurse manager oversees about 60 nurses and CPNs at SLU on the trauma orthopedic floor, which handles gunshot wound victims. A nurse she recently recruited from Puerto Rico experienced her first snowfall this week. But when Rozum found out the new nurse who normally walks or rideshares to work was having a hard time getting to work because of price surging, Rozum decided to pick up her staffer herself.

“When it snows like this that’s obviously the biggest obstacle whether it be near or far. Our peers need us, the patients need us,” said Rozum. “She did say I was a much better driver than the Uber, so I take that as a great kudos.”

The snow hasn’t had too much of an impact at Lambert International Airport, where machines have kept the runways clear of snow and ice, spokesman Roger Lotz said Wednesday.

“I’m looking at a clear runway,” Lotz said. “We’ve had no interruption.”

But there have been flight cancellations, Lotz said. Sunday saw the most, with a handful occurring Monday through Wednesday. Canceled flights may have nothing to do with weather conditions in St. Louis, Lotz said. Winter weather also has gripped much of the country, causing unusual amounts of snowfall in even warmer parts of the U.S.

Colter Peterson, Taylor Tiamoyo Harris and Kim Bell of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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