PINE BLUFF, Ark. — Thousands of people in Pine Bluff have been dealing with critically low water pressure since last week. Monday night the company in charge said it isn’t any closer to a solution.
During a meeting between city and county leaders and representatives from Liberty Utilities, the company said it believes there are water main breaks that it can’t locate.
Governor Asa Hutchinson now plans to meet with city leaders and emergency management teams in Pine Bluff on Tuesday.
The water problems started last Thursday when County Judge Gerald Robinson says the water pressure dropped drastically and without warning, He calls what’s happening in the city unacceptable.
“We need a sense of urgency with this,” Robinson said. “What was so disheartening to me is the fact that they [Liberty] didn’t have an emergency plan in place.”
At Jefferson Regional Medical Center water problems forced the hospital to stop all non-emergency surgeries and only intake urgent, surgical cases. Ambulance bays are lined with portable bathrooms for staff and medical waste bags are being used for patients.
“It’s kind of like boxing with an octopus,” said Jefferson Regional’s Safety Officer Randall Harris, referring to having to face water issues, the winter storm, and a global pandemic.
The hospital is using water trucks to help fill up its system and relying on the fire department to keep its dialysis center open.
“It’s a whole other deal when you’re trying to dialysis patients, you can’t put a value on what it means to those patients,” Harris added.
While the problem is clear, the solution is murkier. Liberty promised its bringing in more crews and using drones to search for leaks. It’s also asking customers to call in problem spots, saying that helped crews find 114 leaks on Monday.
“We’re looking for them, our customers are looking for them. It’s working,” said Liberty Utilities Spokeswoman Kelli Price. “We’ve got more work to do and we’re working on that, but our customers are helping us and we really appreciate that.”
It’s communication that some say is falling short, claiming Liberty hasn’t been upfront with customers.
“We still don’t know exactly what is going on,” said Saracen Resort and Casino, Chief Market Officer Carlton Saffa. “It is absolute insanity.”
Usually, open 24 hours, Sarcen Casino had to close down for the first time because of the water pressure. Since its been closed, the casino donated more than 21,000 bottles of water to people in the community.
Saffa says he the first heard from Liberty was a call on Sunday which the utility hosted and invited some city and business leaders.
“I worry about the elderly or a single mom who is completely forgotten in this mix,” Saffa said. “If they’re not calling something this big and letting us know what’s going on, you can bet they’re not letting the average person in their house know what’s going on.”
Liberty representatives acknowledged the company doesn’t have a mass communication system to alert customers in Pine Bluff.
Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington said she believed there were warning signs Liberty ignored, including a possible leak near a city park that resulted in water bills totaling nearly $40,000.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office confirmed to us that it is also looking into the situation in Pine Bluff.
“The Attorney General is working with community leaders in Pine Bluff including the Judge, Mayor, Jefferson Regional Medical Center, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Saracen Casino, Simmons Bank and others to address the concerns over the availability of water from Liberty Utilities. The Attorney General has received frequent updates from Arkansas’s major electric, natural gas and water utilities since winter storms hit our state over a week ago. Service interruptions and potential rate hikes from the recent weather will be investigated, especially as it relates to electric and water service.” Amanda Priest, Communication Specialist for AG’s Office said.