Weeks after winter storms, Mississippi city still grappling with water crisis

By Joseph Ax and Rory Doyle

JACKSON, Miss. (Reuters) – Officials in Mississippi’s largest city, Jackson, are aiming to have running water largely restored by the weekend, nearly three weeks after devastating winter weather left tens of thousands of residents without service.

The city on Friday was again distributing non-potable water at four sites so people can flush their toilets, and residents must still boil any faucet water before using it for food preparation, drinking, washing dishes or brushing teeth.

Charles Williams, the city’s public works director, said on Thursday that workers should soon be able to sample enough water to lift the boil advisory.

“I see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Williams said at a news conference, sounding more optimistic than he did on Wednesday, when problems at the city’s treatment plant caused pressure to drop across the entire system. At that time, he estimated around a quarter of Jackson’s 43,000 water connections – most of which serve multiple households – were not operating.

Officials did not have an updated estimate as of Friday, though city spokeswoman Michelle Atoa said the system maintained pressure overnight.

Tamiko Smith, 53, spent several anxiety-filled days scrambling to find clean water to perform the at-home dialysis treatments her husband, Otis, requires four days a week.

She tracked down some packaged water at a dialysis training center. Her husband’s uncle, however, who comes to Jackson to receive his own dialysis at a clinic, went three days without treatment because the facility had no access to water.

“It was very stressful,” said Smith, who compared the situation to living in a “third-world country.”

The problems stem from the same cold snap that wreaked havoc in Texas last month, shutting down the state’s power grid and leaving millions without heat in sub-freezing temperatures.

Jackson, the state capital with a population of more than 160,000 people, has seen more than 100 water main leaks since the storm and has been repairing them as quickly as possible, officials said.

The city’s mayor, Chokwe Lumumba, sent a letter to Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves earlier this week requesting $47 million in emergency funding to repair and improve Jackson’s water system.

Resident Jennifer Cattenhead, 39, and her three children finally had water service return on Thursday after more than two weeks without it.

“I was like, ‘Oh Lord,'” she said with relief.

Cattenhead had driven miles to find stores with jugs of water in stock, and she melted ice to use for flushing toilets. The first week after the storm, her house also had no power or heat, forcing her family to sleep in their cars for warmth.

The crisis has also shuttered businesses across the city. Jeff Good, the co-owner of three restaurants, said his pizzeria, Sal & Mookie’s New York Pizza & Ice Cream Joint, would open on Friday for the first time since Feb. 17 after getting water restored on Thursday.

Workers at his Broad Street Bakery & Café, meanwhile, were spending all day on Friday baking after the water returned ahead of reopening on Saturday morning.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani and Rory Doyle; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Diane Craft)

U.S. weekly jobless claims rise moderately; labor market regaining footing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose last week, likely boosted by brutal winter storms in the densely populated South in mid-February, though the labor market outlook is improving amid declining new COVID-19 cases.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits totaled a seasonally adjusted 745,000 for the week ended Feb. 27, compared to 736,000 in the prior week, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 750,000 applications in the latest week.

Stormy weather in the South left large parts of Texas without power or water for days. The deep freeze shut oil production and refineries in Texas, the biggest producer of natural gas and oil in the United States.

The labor market has lagged the acceleration in overall economic activity, which has been driven by nearly $900 billion in additional pandemic relief provided by the government in late December. Consumer spending rebounded strongly in January as daily coronavirus cases and hospitalizations dropped sharply.

Though the pace of decline in infections has stalled, economists believe the labor market will accelerate in the spring and through summer, noting that vaccinations were increasing daily. A boost to hiring is also expected from President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion recovery plan, under consideration by Congress.

Weekly jobless claims have dropped from a record 6.867 million in March 2020 when the pandemic hit the United States a little more than a year ago. They, however, remain above their 665,000 peak during the 2007-09 Great Recession. In a well functioning labor market, claims are normally in a 200,000 to 250,000 range.

Last week’s claims data has no bearing on February’s employment report as it falls outside the period during which the government surveyed establishments and households. According to a Reuters poll of economists, the government will likely report on Friday that nonfarm payrolls increased by 180,000 jobs in February after rising only 49,000 in January.

Hopes for a pick-up in hiring last month were supported by a survey last week showing consumers’ perceptions of the labor market improved in February after deteriorating in January and December. In addition, a measure of manufacturing employment increased to a two-year high in February.

But those expectations were tempered by reports on Wednesday showing private employers hiring fewer-than-expected workers in February. Employment growth in the services industry retreated last month, with businesses reporting they were “unable to fill vacant positions with qualified applicants.”

The year-long COVID-19 pandemic is keeping some workers at home, fearful of accepting or returning to jobs that could expose them to the virus. These workers are now allowed to apply for government-funded unemployment benefits.

The Federal Reserve’s Beige Book report noted “continued difficulties attracting and retaining qualified workers” reported by many of the U.S. central bank’s contacts last month, with labor shortages “most acute among low-skill occupations and skilled trade positions.”

The Fed’s contacts cited the coronavirus, childcare, and unemployment benefits as factors behind the labor supply problem.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

U.S. Northeast pummeled by one of worst winter storms in years

By Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. Northeast on Monday awoke under a blanket of snow as a powerful winter storm pummeled a vast swath stretching from Pennsylvania through New England, causing widespread disruption in New York City and other major urban centers in the region.

The powerful nor’easter is forecast to bring 1 to 2 feet (31 cm to 61 cm) of snow across the region through Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service, and snowfall rates could reach 2 to 4 inches (5 cm to 10 cm) per hour during the storm’s peak.

If it achieves its maximum potential, it would be the first winter storm to generate more than 2 feet of snow in New York City since 2016, when a record-breaking blizzard dumped 27.5 inches (70 cm) on the country’s most populous city, according to the weather service.

Winter storm warnings and weather advisories were in place across the Northeast. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency on Sunday, suspending public bus and commuter rail service for the entire day on Monday.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio imposed restrictions on non-essential travel starting at 6 a.m. EST (1100 GMT) on Monday due to heavy snowfall and strong winds expected to batter the city. De Blasio also announced the suspension of in-person learning at the city’s public schools through Tuesday.

The state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, later on Monday declared a state of emergency in the city and in nine other counties due to the storm.

“This storm is no joke and the main concern right now is that the expected snowfall rate of 2 inches per hour this afternoon creates an extremely dangerous situation on our roadways,” Cuomo said.

The stormy weather affected more than just roads and travel as COVID-19 vaccination sites and testing locations were forced to close or change their schedules.

All six vaccine mega-sites across New Jersey were closed on Monday, and vaccine appointments were rescheduled at many state-run sites in New York state. Vaccinations and testing were also suspended at New York City public hospitals and health centers.

De Blasio said that, with the city facing up to 22 inches (56 cm) of snow, vaccinations would be canceled on Tuesday as well. “The storm is disrupting our vaccination effort and we need to keep people safe,” he told a news briefing.

In Boston, health officials announced the closure Monday of a COVID-19 vaccine clinic at the Reggie Lewis Center, an large indoor sports center.

But many Northeasterners greeted the heavy snowfall with excitement, taking to social media to share photos of streets, parks and backyards blanketed with the white stuff, as well as happy pets playing in the snow.

Even the giant pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington seemed to enjoy the winter weather when it hit the nation’s capital on Sunday.

“Slides, somersaults and pure panda joy. Happy snow day from giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian!,” the zoo wrote on Twitter, with a video showing the furry black-and-white creatures rolling in the fresh powder and sliding down a snow-covered incline.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Land of the freeze: arctic wave hits U.S. Midwest, Northeast

Trees are seen after the record snowfall in Erie, Pennsylvania, U.S., December 26, 2017 in this picture obtained from social media. Picture taken December 26, 2017.

By Gina Cherelus

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Most of the U.S. Northeast and Midwest grappled with a post-Christmas deep freeze on Thursday, with temperatures expected to plunge as low as minus 20 degrees F (minus 29 C) in North Dakota as forecasters warned that the harsh winter weather could usher in the New Year.

Tioga, about 200 miles (322 km) north of Bismarck, took honors as the coldest spot in the continental United States, according to National Weather Service (NWS) spokesman Bob Oravec. The mercury dived to minus 15 F early on Thursday afternoon.

“By tomorrow morning, low temperatures will probably be 15 to 20 degrees below zero in the northern and northwestern areas of North Dakota, maybe even in north Minnesota,” Oravec said.

On Wednesday, International Falls, Minnesota, about 300 miles north of Minneapolis, lived up to its reputation as the “Icebox of the Nation.” The low temperature there dropped to 37 degrees F below zero, breaking the old record for the day of 32 degrees below, set in 1924. Temperatures moderated to minus 2 F on Thursday.

Mayor Bob Anderson told Reuters that a local paper mill had to reduce operations because of the cold. But he said mail was still being delivered, and the town’s roughly 6,000 weather-hardened residents were taking the cold in stride.

For most of the region encompassing New England, northern Pennsylvania and New York, the NWS issued wind chill advisories or warnings. Temperatures in the region ranged from highs in the teens and 20s F to lows in the single digits or below zero.

For upstate New York, east of Lake Ontario, the NWS warned of “dangerously” cold wind chills of minus 5 F to minus 30 F through Friday. In northern Vermont, conditions are even more brutal, with wind chills threatening to bottom out at minus 40 F.

On Twitter, the hashtag #ItsSoCold was the No. 1 trending topic in the United States on Thursday as social media users expressed their frustration with Old Man Winter.

“When your landlord doesn’t have the heat on during the workweek so the cat sitting in your lap isn’t just cute, but also practical. #ItsSoCold,” wrote user Walton Clark on Twitter.

Erie, a city of about 100,000 on the shores of Lake Erie in northwest Pennsylvania, was expecting a fresh round of winter storms that could bring as much as an additional 10 inches (25 cm) of “lake effect” snow, forecasters said. The area is already buried under more than 65 inches from a record-breaking storm earlier this week.

The accumulations, heavy even by the standards of the Great Lakes’ eastern shores, resulted from a wave of Arctic air moving across the relatively mild waters of the lake, forecasters said.

Light and heavy snow was also expected to fall this weekend in many other parts of the United States, from Montana to Maine, forecasters said.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Additional reporting by Chris Kenning in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Extreme cold weather affects large portions of United States

Large portions of the United States were experiencing dangerously low temperatures on Monday morning, with wind chills poised to hit some 40 degrees Fahrenheit below zero in certain areas.

The National Weather Service issued wind chill advisories in parts of 16 states, warning that gusty winds and low temperatures could lead to frostbite in as little as 20 minutes in some areas.

The warnings covered portions of Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. Temperatures were expected to remain below 20 degrees in almost all of the advisory areas, and large portions were expecting sub-zero or single-digit temperatures.

Wind gusts in the high teens drove the perceived temperature down further, the service said. People affected by the extreme cold were advised to dress warmly and cover all exposed skin.

The National Weather Service said the temperatures were “below-normal” and would shift further east over the next two days. Lake effect snow warnings were in effect for portions of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, and the service said there was a chance of heavy snow before Tuesday night. Some parts of New York could receive up to 20 inches, forecasts say.

Winter Storm Pushes North Pole Temperatures Past Freezing Point

The same storm system that caused widespread flooding and other extreme weather in the United States also pushed temperatures at the North Pole to abnormally high levels, according to a new report from The Washington Post.

The newspaper reported Wednesday that temperatures at the northernmost point on Earth were about 50 degrees warmer than historic averages for late December. The temperature was even above the freezing point of 32 degrees Fahrenheit at one time, according to the report.

To put that in perspective, the Post noted it was actually colder in parts of the United States on Wednesday than it was at the North Pole. Temperatures in parts of Colorado and Wyoming reached 15 degrees below zero on Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.

Messy Weather Disrupting Holiday Travel Plans

Severe weather was impacting the holiday travel plans of many Americans on Thursday morning, and threatening to impact more.

The remnants of the storm system that produced Wednesday’s deadly tornado outbreak were moving across the southeastern United States on Thursday. The National Weather Service said the system had weakened considerably, but it was still capable of producing heavy rainfall and localized severe thunderstorms throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coast. The storms were expected to be the worst in Alabama and Georgia, but rain was falling as far north as New Jersey.

According to flight monitoring website FlightAware.com, 201 flights to or from United States destinations were cancelled as of 11:45 a.m. EST on Thursday morning. Another 1,720 were delayed. Both of those numbers had steadily risen throughout the morning.

A large percentage of the delays were the result of heavy storms at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the world’s busiest airport in terms of passenger traffic. FlightAware indicated 111 flights to or from the airport had been cancelled, and another 703 were delayed.

More Americans than ever before are expected to travel this Christmas season. AAA projects that 100.5 million Americans were expected to make a journey of at least 50 miles in the 12-day period that began Wednesday morning. More than 90 percent of people were expected to drive to their destinations, but 5.8 million were expected to fly. That’s an increase of .7 percent over last year, AAA reported.

Regardless of whether they were traveling or not, there’s a good chance Americans would experience record temperatures on Christmas. The National Climate Data Center reported that there have been 3,912 record daily high temperatures this month, and that trend was expected to continue Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

The Weather Channel reported temperatures in New York City reached 70 degrees early Christmas Eve morning, smashing the previous record of 63 degrees. The forecast was calling for a high of 64 degrees on Christmas, which would tie a 33-year-old record.

Still, some Western parts of the country were expected to see a White Christmas as Winter Storm Goliath arrived Thursday and continued to dump snow throughout Christmas and well into next week.

The National Weather Service had issued winter storm warnings in northern and central California, southeastern Oregon, northern Idaho, eastern Utah and western Colorado. The service had also issued winter weather advisories in parts of those states, as well as Washington, Arizona, Montana and Nevada. The service was also warning of the possibility of avalanches in Idaho, Utah and Colorado.

The Weather Channel reported that the storm could bring more than a foot of snow to higher elevations by Saturday night, though most of the affected areas are expected to see fewer than five inches. However, the channel’s meteorologists say the storm may intensify over the weekend, and early projections show that Goliath could dump up to a foot of snow over the Great Plains before next Tuesday.