By Joseph Ax and Rory Doyle
JACKSON, Miss. (Reuters) - A crisis that left thousands of residents of Mississippi's capital without running water for weeks appears to be nearing an end, a local official said on Friday, as workers continue to restore service following paralyzing winter storms.
Jackson, the Southern state's largest city with a population of more than 160,000 people, again distributed non-potable water at four sites so people could flush their toilets. Residents must still boil any faucet water to kill any disease-causing organisms before using it.
Charles Williams, Jackson's public works director, told reporters that workers should be able to start sampling water in affected areas this weekend, a necessary step before the boil advisory can be lifted.
"We're pleased with our progress," Williams said. "Positive progress - a lot better than we were on Monday."
Williams estimated that fewer than 5,000 of the city's 43,000 water connections - most of which serve multiple households - remain dry.
The problems stemmed from the same cold snap that wreaked havoc in Texas last month, shutting down that state's power grid and leaving millions of people without heat in sub-freezing temperatures.
Jackson resident Tamiko Smith, 53, spent several anxiety-filled days scrambling to find clean water for the at-home dialysis treatments her husband, Otis, requires four days a week.
She tracked down some packaged water at a dialysis training center. But her husband's uncle, 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."
Jackson has experienced more than 100 water main leaks since the storm and has been repairing them as quickly as possible, officials said.
Mayor Chokwe Lumumba sent a letter to Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves this week requesting $47 million in emergency funding to repair and improve Jackson's water system.
Resident Jennifer Cattenhead, 39, and her three children had water service return on Thursday after more than two weeks without it.
"I was like, 'Oh Lord,'" Cattenhead 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 also shuttered businesses across the city. Jeff Good, the co-owner of three restaurants, said his pizzeria, Sal & Mookie's, was reopening on Friday for the first time since Feb. 17 after getting water restored on Thursday.
Workers at his Broad Street Baking Company and Cafe were spending Friday baking after the water returned ahead of reopening on Saturday morning.
Good said he continued to pay his workers but worried that his restaurants might suffer permanent losses. While he has insurance, Good said that would cover only some of his missing revenue.
"It is a way to keep us from bleeding out, but it certainly isn't a holiday vacation for us," Good said.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani and Rory Doyle; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Diane Craft and Will Dunham)