Memphis ice storm crystalizes need for resilient, reliant action

By: - February 7, 2022 7:00 am
Two men remove a tree downed during a Feb. 3 ice storm in Shelby County. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

Two men remove a tree downed during a Feb. 3 ice storm in Shelby County – a storm that knocked out power for up to a week, in some areas of Memphis. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

Heavy ice-encased tree branches crashed onto power lines across Memphis – causing 132,000 people to lose power in the first week of February. Five days later, many of them are still in the dark.  

For many, it feels like the same song, second verse. Last February, a winter storm brought about freezing temperatures that caused line breaks and pumping issues. It depressurized the water distribution system and brought a risk of bacteria to all 260,000 households in the MLGW service area. Residents boiled water for eight days. 

Now, people are sleeping in their cars, relying on the kindness of the community for shelter, or spending their fixed income on hotel rooms to stay warm. They all question: Why wasn’t Memphis more prepared? 

The Tennessee Lookout asked MLGW President J.T. Young what the utility has done to better plan for ice storms since the 2021 winter event. Young said his team engaged with other city utilities on preparedness tactics that can be incorporated in MLGW’s infrastructure improvement plan, but it’s been challenging for MLGW to get the resources needed to significantly trim trees throughout the city. Young said that tree damage complicates circuit repairments because tree limbs continue to fall as crews try to restore.  

“At the end of the day, there are a lot of things that make every storm somewhat unique,” Young said. “If you look historically, and the impacting storms that we have had over the last several decades, this particular storm ranks up there.” 

Same song, second verse: In February 2021, a winter storm brought freezing temperatures that caused line breaks and a risk of bacteria, forcing residents to boil water for eight days.

To determine whether these recent ice storms are part of a larger pattern, scientists are tracking the low temperatures to see if they are becoming a new normal or if it’s just anomalous weather events. 

At East Tennessee State University, State Climatologist Andrew Joyner and his team develop monthly and annual reports on temperatures and precipitation. They analyzed Memphis’ temperatures during the 2021 winter storm in a study, which will be published this spring. They found that the freezing temperatures stayed around for an unusually long period of time: nearly nine consecutive days. 

“The biggest thing was the duration and the extent. Like it was such a large area that was impacted, and a lot of stations setting record lows. That was odd,” Joyner said. 

The western side of Tennessee is experiencing the most extreme swings out of the entire state when it comes to changing temperatures and precipitation, according to Joyner. His team is questioning if it has to do with changing continental air masses. In winters past, these massive cold air blasts from the arctic didn’t push into Tennessee as much, stopping short of the Mississippi River and staying in the Great Plains region. But now these low temperatures are reaching farther east. 

“We don’t know for sure if that’s climate change related, but it seems like one of those trends that is shifting. But if we start to see a lot of these winter events, then it starts to add up in the database that you can analyze and say, ‘okay, this could be part of a pattern,’” Joyner said. “You have all these things that exacerbate or kind of press the issue on places that are already vulnerable. And so, any little change or event, you know, even if it’s anomalous, or climate change related could really have a big impact.”

Rep. Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis (Photo: John Partipilo)

Memphis Representative Barbara Cooper knows this well. During the storm last year, she drove around handing out clean water during the boil water advisory. Now, she’s trying to get people to places with electricity. When the Tennessee Lookout gave her a call, she was helping a constituent find power because their son-in-law was on a breathing machine.

“I think we could do better responding to people’s needs. I know the city can’t take care of everyone and everything all the time, but we know from experience that we may have these ice storms and snowstorms and whatever other emergencies that may come up. We need to be prepared,” she said. 

With long-term outages, Rep. Cooper said she is now thinking about how the state needs to implement a program that could help people get financial relief. People are spending money they don’t have to be safe, whether that be for a motel room or rebuying groceries after food spoils. 

Rep. Cooper’s district, South Memphis, is a historically Black neighborhood. As industry sprawled around them in the mid-1900s, residents didn’t have water pipes and reliable city services until the 1980s. Now, on social media, people have posted about concerns of MLGW prioritizing whiter and wealthier communities in their response. The Tennessee Lookout asked MLGW about the intersection of restoration issues, aging infrastructure, and environmental justice. They responded by saying more trees are inside the I-240 loop than in the suburbs. 

Over the last year, MLGW started a weatherization grant program, which improved 500 homes for people on limited incomes last year. Weatherized homes are better insulated and can keep residents safer for a longer period of time during a winter storm during a power outage. It’s something the new Mid-South chapter of Al Gore’s Climate Reality group supports. 

“For me, it’s no different than shifting from plastic drinking bottles to something you can reuse over and over,” said Vance Lavell, Climate Reality Global Leader and Mid-South Chapter Chair. “It’s important because it’s something we can do ourselves and it doesn’t take a lot of effort. But when I look at energy, where I would put more importance is the safety of our water system and the safety of the power grid.” 

Like many power grids built throughout the United States – built decades ago – the Mid-South’s system is vulnerable. In a master plan, the Shelby County Office of Resilience recommended implementing a smart grid to mitigate power outages.  

The city could strengthen the grid and increase restoration response times by using cloud-based services that allow for real-time connectivity, Lavelle said. It allows for energy producers and distributors to deploy artificial intelligence in a way that isn’t available in typical troubleshooting. But it comes with a lot of cybersecurity risks and the cost would be paid for in part by customers through a higher utility rate. 

Utility improvements depend on investments. According to the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, 67 percent of public infrastructure needs counted in their inventory this year were not funded. 

Advocacy groups like the Sierra Club continue to push for action in the current General Assembly, but infrastructure resiliency and natural disaster response bills continue to stall. 

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Ashli Blow
Ashli Blow

Ashli Blow is a freelance writer who covers environmental science and policy. Her stories range from the lives of people in urban watersheds to those who roam the wilderness. She was raised in Memphis and produced breaking news at WMC Action News 5. She has now been working in journalism and strategic communications for nearly 10 years. Ashli lives in Seattle and is a graduate student at the University of Washington, studying climate policy.