Deep Freeze Means Hectic Schedule For One Southern Plumber

Extreme cold weather has struck the Midwest, the Northeast and the South, where residents are unaccustomed to such low temperatures. Audie Cornish talks to Atlanta plumber Melvin Davis, who has been making calls all day to people whose pipes have frozen.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The arctic air that put a freeze on the Midwest and Plains states moved east last night. Chicago was -11 overnight; Pittsburgh was -9. And the polar vortex extended deep into the south. Charlotte, N.C., plunged to 7 degrees, breaking a record set way back in the 1880s. Birmingham, Ala., hit the same low number on the thermometer. And residents of Atlanta, Ga., woke up to a 6-degree freeze this morning. That beat the record from the 1970s.

Many of those in the southern extremes of the deep freeze are finding themselves, and their houses, unprepared for single digits. HVAC technicians and plumbers are overwhelmed with calls from people whose heaters have failed or whose pipes have frozen. Melvin Davis, owner of Davis Plumbing in Atlanta, is one of the tradesmen dashing from call to call today.

MELVIN DAVIS: Well, the first call I had was around 5 o'clock in the morning, where some lady got up and flushed her toilet, and didn't have no water to fill it up back up. So, you know, you've got these crawl spaces here in Georgia that - they're old, some of them have holes in them, and you'll find a little spot that doesn't have ventilation. And then sure enough, that'll be where there's a pipe. Any pipe within two, three feet of this 6-degree temperature is - going to freeze it up. And they're starting to break now. So it's starting to warm up a little bit and break some of the other ones that are exposed to the sun.

CORNISH: So help us understand. The problem is not just that the pipes freeze but, of course, what happens as they start to defrost?

DAVIS: Yeah. It's really afterwards. I expect it to get really bad Thursday and Friday, when the freeze breaks. But I can tell you right now, I know I will work all through the weekend and probably into Tuesday or Wednesday, doing freeze breaks. So everybody I know, right now is completely covered up with calls.

And we had four heaters; of course, they're out. My buddies have got all their heaters out. So now, it's just a matter of going out with torches and trying to get space heaters where people have them.

CORNISH: And you mentioned heaters. Explain how that works, and also explain the torches.

DAVIS: What you can do is, you've got these little kerosene blower heaters; you know, forced air. And you force those into these basements - of course, unoccupied - and that'll thaw it out. But then you've got to either leave it there with the homeowner and come back to retrieve it, or get them to get some kind of fans and, you know, something to move some heat around in these basements. You know, it's going to get colder again tonight.

CORNISH: So, Melvin, what can people do once their pipes are frozen?

DAVIS: Once they're frozen, what I would do is, I would cut off the main and open everything up, if I didn't have any way to thaw them out with everything open. But you need, you have to have a way to release all that pressure because as soon as it starts expanding - and it will, when it warms up - that's when the breaks happen.

CORNISH: So Melvin, how did your own house hold up, or did you take some proactive action?

DAVIS: Well, you know, my house - like every other plumber I know - all the plumbing is falling apart in it. So we're used to it. But no, I actually, you know, I insulated mine. And I guess I'm OK for now. We'll see. But I have my fair share of plumbing problems, too.

CORNISH: And anyone on the way to fix them?

DAVIS: Actually, I usually hire another company.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Well, Melvin Davis, of Davis Plumbing in Atlanta, thanks so much for talking with us. And good luck taking care of your own pipes.

DAVIS: Thank you, ma'am. Have a good one.

CORNISH: And to those of you shivering down South, don't worry - warm weather is on the way. Atlanta is forecast to have temperatures close to 60 degrees this weekend.

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