City officials set up five distribution sites and urged people to use as little water as possible until eight broken lines are repaired and the water system is restored. Residents can drink water if they boil it, but officials implored them to limit such use because efforts to fill water towers and flush the system will be slowed unless people turn off the taps.
On Thursday morning, residents who stopped by one water site outside a Sam's Club seemed ready to conserve.
"Since were not supposed to use water I didn't shave this morning," said Jon Vial, toting a gallon of bottled water. "We're cutting down showers big time and trying to keep those under a few minutes."
Kate Reynolds picked up two gallons of water.
"We're scumming it up right now and not really bathing," she said. "For the most part we're just using bottled water and not showering."
Reynolds said she has family in Des Moines, about 30 miles away, where her family can go for help.
Workers were handing out one gallon of water to each person who showed up, and had gone through more than 400 gallons by midmorning.
Flooding in Ames came after three nights of heavy rain caused creeks and rivers in central Iowa to swell. Hundreds of residents have had to leave their homes in Ames, Des Moines and Colfax, and a 16-year-old girl was killed when a flooded creek swept her car off a road near Des Moines.
Ames Mayor Ann Campbell described it as "unlike anything we've seen in Ames before."
Ames, home to Iowa State University, shut down its water system after two large pipes broke beneath flooded areas. Crews then found six smaller breaks in lines. The leaks drained the city's water towers, raising the chance of contamination and reducing water supply to only a trickle in some areas.
Officials told residents not use water outside and to only use what they absolutely had to for flushing toilets and personal hygiene.
Many restaurants and coffee shops were closed Thursday after the city asked them to voluntarily shut down to help conserve water and protect customers from possible bacterial contamination.
Ames' drinking water likely won't be available until early next week.
"We need everyone to conserve everything they can," said John Dunn, the city's water and pollution control director. "This is not a normal day."
Kelly Moore and her two daughters picked up three gallons of water.
"We're putting glasses over our faucets to remind ourselves not to use them," Moore said. "We went out of town for showers last night."
Although life won't return to normal in Ames for several days, floodwaters began to recede Thursday. That allowed police to open the northbound lanes of Interstate 35 south of Ames, although a 9-mile-stretch of southbound I-35 remained closed.
It wasn't clear when hundreds of residents could return to flood-threatened homes in Ames, Des Moines and other communities.