Power Comes Back in Texas, but Water Systems Are Crippled
The end of frigid weather across Texas was in sight on Friday, but many residents who fled their homes this week in search of warm beds and showers were just discovering the extent of the winter storm’s destruction.
Nearly half the state’s population — about 13 million people — remained under boil-water advisories after freezing temperatures overwhelmed systems providing clean water. The administration of more than 400,000 first doses and 330,000 second doses of the coronavirus vaccines was delayed in Texas.
Nationally, six million doses of coronavirus vaccines had been held up because of snowstorms, the White House said on Friday. And the death toll across the country has climbed to 58, with many of the fatalities linked to the electricity crisis in Texas.
As people in the state surveyed the damage, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s energy grid, said there was no longer a need for rotating outages.
President Biden on Friday said he would sign a major disaster declaration, which would enable the government to provide more aid to Texas, ahead of a potential visit to the state next week. Mr. Biden emphasized that he did not want the visit to create a “burden” for officials involved in emergency relief efforts in Texas.
“They’re working like the devil to take care of their folks,” Mr. Biden told reporters.
Many Texans are struggling to get even the basic necessities. Cities are opening water distribution sites, and more than 500 vehicles lined up on Friday morning at the headquarters of the San Antonio Food Bank.
The food bank hoped to distribute 100,000 pounds of food and water this weekend. At the site, volunteers and members of the Texas National Guard assessed pallets of potatoes, onions, bread, peanut butter, cakes, watermelon and other fresh produce, readying the food for residents hit hard by blackouts.
Qiana Abrams, a personal trainer who lives in Dallas, said restaurants by a hotel she has been staying at were all closed. The 7-Eleven was picked clean. To get by, she has returned to her flooded apartment to get what food remained in the freezer.
Luis Moreno, a retired State Department employee who lives in San Antonio, said he went to an H-E-B supermarket on Friday expecting chaos. People were more well-behaved than he expected but signs of the supply chain disruption were obvious.
Butter and margarine were gone. The bread counter was nearly wiped out. He felt lucky to find milk and eggs.
“I think it’s luck of the draw,” Mr. Moreno said.
Austin’s city manager, Spencer Cronk, said at a news conference on Friday afternoon that more than one million gallons of water would be arriving in Austin in the next two days. The city will set up distribution centers, and will deliver water to the most vulnerable citizens, such as older people and those without homes.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re on the right path and we’re going to see a positive recovery hour after hour,” said Greg Meszaros, the director of Austin’s water utility.
Dispatch lines for water emergencies are overwhelmed, Mr. Meszaros said, with upward of 10,000 calls a day. Normally, the utility gets about 20 calls a day. Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston said that at least 4,900 water pipes had burst throughout the city.
The National Weather Service projects high temperatures in the Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio areas to reach the mid-40s on Friday, before rising into the 50s on Saturday and the 60s on Sunday. As the weather warms and more pipes burst amid the thaw, Mr. Meszaros said he worried there would not be enough plumbers to meet the demand.
Days into a rolling series of crises set off by extreme winter weather around the country, the death toll continues to climb, and the enormity of the losses are taking a clearer shape.
There have been at least 58 deaths linked to the brutal conditions, according to The Associated Press, with the causes including carbon monoxide poisoning, car accidents, drownings, house fires and hypothermia.
Among the deaths that have been linked to the punishing cold is that of an 11-year-old boy found dead in his bed on Monday morning in Conroe, Texas. The family of the boy, Cristian Pineda, had no power the night before, and the parents, the boy and his siblings had huddled together in one bedroom, Lt. James Kelemen of the Conroe Police Department said on Friday.
Lieutenant Kelemen said an autopsy was being done to determine the cause of the boy’s death. A GoFundMe page set up by a family member to cover the expenses of the boy’s burial in Honduras, where his family is from, said the family had no electricity for two days and the temperature was 12 degrees that morning.
In a rural community south of San Antonio, a 69-year-old man was found dead inside his home where he lived alone. He did not have electricity, and the authorities said his bedroom was 35 degrees when they found him.
In Abilene, Texas, the authorities said that a man died at a local medical facility after he was unable to get dialysis treatment at the site. Large amounts of filtered water, in addition to electricity and heat, are required to properly provide care for dialysis patients.
“Water was shut down to that facility,” said Cande Flores, the Abilene fire chief. “We were going to move him to another facility but before that could happen, he became deceased.”
Chief Flores said he did not have the age or identity of the man who died at the facility. Three other deaths in Abilene appeared to be connected to the cold and the grid failure, he said, including a homeless man who died from exposure, a 60-year-old man found dead in his home and an 86-year-old woman found frozen in her backyard by her daughter.
In Houston, the police said a woman and girl were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning and a man and boy were hospitalized on Tuesday morning after a car had been left running in an attached garage “to create heat as the power is out.” The Police Department advised that “cars, grills and generators should not be used in or near a building.”
In Oklahoma, a 17-year-old girl drowned on Thursday afternoon after she fell through a frozen pond, according to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. The teenager, whose name was not released, walked out onto a frozen pond to retrieve a dog, fell through the ice and did not resurface.
The White House on Friday said that six million doses of coronavirus vaccines had been held up because of snowstorms across the country, creating a backlog affecting every state and throwing off the pace of vaccination appointments over the next week.
Andy Slavitt, a White House pandemic adviser, said at a news conference that the six million doses represented about three days’ worth of shipping delays, and that states had already made up for some of the backlog with existing stock. Of the six million doses, 1.4 million were already in transit on Friday, he said, and the rest were expected to be delivered in the next week.
But Mr. Slavitt pleaded with local officials to make up for the lost time in the coming days.
“We’re asking vaccine administration sites to extend their hours even further and offer additional appointments and to try to reschedule the vaccinations over the coming days and weeks as significantly more supply arrives,” he said.
The delay revealed how interconnected the nation’s vaccine distribution network is, vulnerable to substantial interruptions because of extreme weather. Mr. Slavitt said that FedEx, UPS and McKesson — the drug distribution giant that manages Moderna’s vaccine — had been impeded, with workers snowed in and unable to package and ship vaccines, including the kits and diluent that go with them.
FedEx and UPS would make Saturday deliveries this week, he said.
Closed roads on delivery routes were also forming a bottleneck, and more than 2,000 vaccination sites located in areas with power outages could not receive doses. That prompted federal officials to hold off shipping to areas that might not be able to keep them at the frigid temperatures required.
“They’re sitting safe and sound in our factories and hubs, ready to be shipped out as soon as the weather allows,” Mr. Slavitt said.
Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had projected “widespread delays” in vaccine shipments and deliveries because of weather affecting a FedEx facility in Memphis and a UPS facility in Louisville, both vaccine shipping hubs.
Shipment delays had already been reported in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Utah and Washington, among other states, forcing vaccine sites to temporarily shutter and coveted appointments to be rescheduled.
In Texas, where millions of residents lost power during this week’s powerful storm, a delivery of more than 400,000 first doses and 330,000 second doses had been delayed in anticipation of the bad weather. A portion of those shots — roughly 35,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine — were sent to providers in North Texas on Wednesday, but shipments will continue to depend on safety conditions.
Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said Thursday that the state was “asking providers that aren’t able to store vaccine due to power outages to transfer it elsewhere or administer it so it doesn’t spoil.”
On Monday, health officials in Texas scrambled to get more than 5,000 shots into arms after a power outage in a storage facility where they were being kept. But Mr. Van Deusen said that “reports of vaccine spoiling have been minimal.”
The Houston Health Department said Thursday that it would restart vaccinations for second doses this weekend, and schedule additional first and second dose appointments next week.
In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Friday that nearly all of the vaccines that were supposed to be delivered by the federal government had been delayed by the snow. He said the Pfizer vaccines would now arrive on Monday, and Moderna’s would likely arrive in the middle of next week.
No appointments at state-run vaccination sites have been rescheduled so far, he said, though he suggested it was possible if the vaccines did not arrive soon.
“If there is any impact, we’ll let you know right away,” Mr. Cuomo said at a news conference he held earlier Friday.
The governor had said on Thursday night that most of the vaccines for New York, scheduled for delivery between Feb. 12 and Feb. 21, had been delayed.
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Friday during an interview on WNYC that expected shipments of more than 100,000 doses had still not fully arrived from factories, but did not provide an update on when they would come. On Thursday he had said at a news conference that “a vast majority of the resupply we expected for this week has not shipped from the factories yet.”
The city had to hold off on scheduling upward of 35,000 appointments for first vaccine doses because of shipment delays and vaccine shortages, he said then. The opening of two new distribution sites on Thursday had also been postponed, according to the city, with the launch of one at the Empire Outlets on Staten Island moved back to Friday and another in Queens still delayed.
“We still haven’t gotten everything we expect,” Mr. de Blasio said on Friday. “Everything’s been disrupted by the storm.”
In Los Angeles, the city said that appointments for about 12,500 people would be delayed.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said that while 136,000 Pfizer doses had arrived this week, the state had still not received its shipment for the week of 200,000 Moderna doses. He said the shipment could be delayed as late as Monday.
“Because the storms we are seeing in the rest of the country, it’s basically sitting in the FedEx warehouse — and I don’t think they can even get into it because of everything,” Mr. DeSantis said at a news conference Thursday, encouraging those who had appointments rescheduled to “hang in there, the doses are going to get here.”
The White House on Friday also announced the opening of four new federally-supported community vaccination sites in Florida — in Orlando, Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville — that would be able to vaccinate 12,000 people each day. Another new site in Philadelphia would have the capacity to vaccinate 6,000 people a day. All sites would be functioning within two weeks, Mr. Slavitt, the White House adviser, said.
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Troy Closson, Amanda Rosa and Mihir Zaveri contributed reporting.
SAN ANTONIO — A 32-unit apartment complex near San Antonio burned down on Thursday night into Friday morning as fire hydrants ran dry after a winter storm that disrupted the water supply for millions of Texans.
Firefighters were instead forced to rely on water from a nearby stream, which tanker trunks delivered via tight, icy roads. Those trucks filled up a containment pool at the apartment complex, but it could supply water for only a couple of minutes at a time.
“When we opened the hydrant it was just air,” Chief Jerry Bialick of the Bexar-Bulverde Volunteer Fire Department said.
For hours, 125 firefighters from 16 departments battled the flames, which threatened two neighboring apartment buildings. On Thursday, residents stood in the cold and watched as their homes were consumed. On Friday, some tenants returned to survey the smoldering rubble.
About 130 people lost their homes.
“The firefighters were hitting the fire the best they could, but they were running out of water,” said Steve Henshaw, 48, who lived in the building with his wife and said they had not had water since Monday.
Mike Brinkmann, the vice president for distribution and collections with the San Antonio Water System, said an extended power outage, combined with frigid temperatures, meant the utility was unable to pump water to a storage tank that feeds the apartment complex.
Under normal power outages, which can linger for a day or two, the tank holds enough water to last until the power returns, but this week’s abnormally long outage emptied the tank. Mr. Brinkmann also said any water left in the apartment sprinkler system was probably frozen because of insufficient insulation on the pipes.
Residents said they smelled something burning shortly after noon on Thursday. As firefighters arrived, a witness said they discovered that the heating element inside a water heater was firing without water in the system.
About two hours later, the apartment management company sent a text message asking residents to turn off the breakers to their water heaters. Soon after the email was sent, firefighters discovered smoke rising between a bathtub and a wall.
Chief Bialick said the cause of the fire remained unknown, but the blaze quickly spread.
The inability to get water from the hydrants “was literally like going into a boxing ring with one and a half hands tied behind your back,” said Ken Jarvis, a public information officer for the Fire Department.
Mr. Henshaw and his wife, Joann Henshaw, escaped with their laptops. But Ms. Henshaw, teary-eyed, said she left her wedding ring on the counter. Mr. Henshaw, whose 73-year-old mother lived in a different apartment in the building, said he lost precious items from his time in the Air Force.
“Texas wasn’t prepared for the winter storm,” Ms. Henshaw, 49, said. “It froze our pipes. That’s what ultimately led to the fire. It’s really sad.”
Residents at Granada Homes, a 200-unit low-income housing residence for seniors in downtown San Antonio, have been without heat or water since Sunday, leaving them unable to shower or flush their toilets all week as a frigid winter storm seized Texas.
On Thursday night, there was a small measure of relief. Residents gathered to await the delivery of water, brought by community advocates who had filled orange Home Depot buckets with water from hoses and from the river that flows through downtown.
But Juan Flores, 73, said he needed more water to properly flush his toilet, and went to collect some from a bar nearby. He’s been struggling with the storm, he said, and slipped and fell on the ice outside earlier in the week. Now, he was sore from his fall and lugging a water bucket up to his apartment, alone, to flush his toilet.
“Don’t get near me, I stink,” he said, chuckling. “I haven’t taken a shower since Sunday.”
Inside Mr. Flores’s apartment on the fifth floor, there was a space heater and water boiling to help keep him warm. A blue U.S. Navy flag hung from one of his living room walls — he had served four years in the Navy in his 20s, he said.
Mr. Flores shakily picked up the orange bucket, maneuvered his way into the tight bathroom space, and dumped the water into his toilet. “I’m done,” he said after, seeming exasperated. “It’s heavy.”
Mr. Flores said he was fed up with the weather and frustrated with the lack of city assistance and communication — 311 and the local Department of Veterans Affairs office have been unresponsive, he said. “Who can I call?” Mr. Flores asked.
“It’s been horrible,” he said, noting that he had no family or friends in the area to help him out. “I have no one.”
Back in the lobby, Geremy Landín, a community advocate, was making arrangements for the next day. Along with others, he has been organizing donations of food, water and blankets for the residents. Mr. Landín has also gone door-to-door across senior housing complexes in San Antonio to see if residents have water and power and to coordinate temporary moves to warming centers and hotels.
A winter storm delivered snow and ice across the United States this week, bringing frigid temperatures and rolling blackouts to parts of the country that are unaccustomed to severe winter weather.
In California, wildfires and heat waves in recent years forced utilities to shut off power to millions of homes and businesses. Now, Texas is learning that deadly winter storms and intense cold can do the same.
Bill Magness, the president and chief executive of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s grid operator, said on Thursday that Texas was “seconds and minutes” from a catastrophic blackout this week as rotating outages were used to control the flow of electricity.
The country’s two largest states have taken very different approaches to managing their energy needs — Texas deregulated aggressively, letting the free market flourish, while California embraced environmental regulations. Yet the two states are confronting the same ominous reality: They may be woefully unprepared for the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters caused by climate change.
Blackouts in Texas and California have revealed that power plants can be strained and knocked offline by the kind of extreme cold and hot weather that climate scientists have said will become more common as greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere.
The problems in Texas and California highlight the challenge the Biden administration will face in modernizing the electricity system to run entirely on wind turbines, solar panels, batteries and other zero-emission technologies by 2035 — a goal that President Biden set during the 2020 campaign.
The federal government and energy businesses may have to spend trillions of dollars to harden electricity grids against the threat posed by climate change and to move away from the fossil fuels responsible for the warming of the planet in the first place. These are not new ideas. Scholars have long warned that American electricity grids, which are run regionally, will come under increasing strain and needed major upgrades.
“We really need to change our paradigm, particularly utilities, because they are becoming much more vulnerable to disaster,” Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California, said about blackouts in Texas and California. “They need to always think about literally the worst-case scenario because the worst-case scenario is going to happen.”
The Mexican government said on Thursday that it was working to reverse an order from Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas to restrict natural gas exports, part of that state’s effort to resolve widespread power outages that have left millions of Texans without electricity in the middle of a deadly winter storm.
Mr. Abbott’s order has heightened tensions between the two countries, with top Mexican officials protesting the governor’s decision to cut off gas supplies just as Mexico works to resolve its own mass power outages as a result of the frigid weather.
“We are doing our diplomatic work so that this doesn’t happen,” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico said at a news conference on Thursday, referring to Mr. Abbott’s order. “This wouldn’t just affect Mexico — it would also affect other states in the Union.”
Mr. Abbott on Wednesday ordered Texas producers who were exporting natural gas out of state to instead sell to in-state power generators until Sunday.
The fallout south of the border from Mr. Abbott’s measure underscored the extent to which Mexico relies on the United States for much of its power, even as Mr. López Obrador pushes for greater Mexican energy sovereignty.
Gas-fired plants generate about two-thirds of Mexico’s power. In 2019, 96 percent of natural gas imports were from the United States, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The arctic weather in Texas froze natural-gas pipelines between the two countries, according to Mexican energy officials, which, coupled with a surge in demand for gas in the United States, disrupted energy production across northern Mexico and left almost five million customers in Mexico without power earlier this week.
The mass outages affected not just private homes but also industry, with major manufacturers like General Motors and Volkswagen forced to halt operations, leading to an estimated $2.7 billion in losses, according to Reuters.
On Thursday, Mexico’s state energy company, the Federal Electricity Commission, or C.F.E., said it had restored power to all users by generating energy from other sources, including hydroelectric and coal-fired plants.
This latest outage comes on the heels of one in December that briefly left about 10 million people without electricity.
Beto O’Rourke may be just another private citizen now, after unsuccessful bids for president in 2020 and the U.S. Senate in 2018. But his response to the grid failure in Texas is rekindling speculation about his political plans.
While Republican leaders in Texas have come under fire this week over their handling to the crisis, Mr. O’Rourke, a Democrat from El Paso who served in Congress from 2013 to 2019, organized volunteers to make more than 784,000 wellness calls to senior citizens around the state.
Mr. O’Rourke also took to the airwaves, lambasting Senator Ted Cruz, his Republican opponent in the 2018 Senate race, after Mr. Cruz slipped away to Cancún while millions of Texans endured blackouts and water shortages.
In an oil-rich state that Republican leaders often extol as a cutting-edge energy colossus, the sense of alarm around the crisis — especially in major Democratic-led cities in Texas — is giving Mr. O’Rourke a chance to go after opponents on the right.
“The energy capital of North America cannot provide enough energy to warm and power people’s homes,” Mr. O’Rourke said on MSNBC. “We are nearing a failed state in Texas. And it has nothing to do with God or natural disasters. It has everything to do with those in positions of public trust who have failed us.”
Mr. O’Rourke, who came within three percentage points of beating Mr. Cruz in 2018, has left open the possibility of mounting a challenge to unseat Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, in 2022.
Mr. O’Rourke has faced skepticism over his chances in a state where many people take pride in owning guns. He has faced criticism for urging greater control of assault-style weapons after the 2019 massacre of 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso. “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he said in a presidential primary debate in September 2019.
But Mr. O’Rourke has also hit back at critics, including Mr. Abbott. In one barb on Twitter aimed at the governor in January, Mr. O’Rourke said, “You are obsessed with pleasing the NRA and the gun lobby instead of protecting the people you were elected to serve.”
Like millions of his constituents across Texas, Senator Ted Cruz had a frigid home without electricity this week amid the state’s power crisis. But unlike most, Mr. Cruz got out, fleeing Houston and hopping a Wednesday afternoon flight to Cancún with his family for a respite at a luxury resort.
Photos of Mr. Cruz and his wife, Heidi, boarding the flight ricocheted quickly across social media and left both his political allies and rivals aghast at a tropical trip as a disaster unfolded at home. The blowback only intensified after Mr. Cruz, a Republican, released a statement saying he had flown to Mexico “to be a good dad” and accompany his daughters and their friends; he noted he was flying back Thursday afternoon, though he did not disclose how long he had originally intended to stay.
Text messages sent from Ms. Cruz to friends and Houston neighbors on Wednesday revealed a hastily planned trip. Their house was “FREEZING,” as Ms. Cruz put it — and she proposed a getaway until Sunday. Ms. Cruz invited others to join them at the Ritz-Carlton in Cancún, where they had stayed “many times,” noting the room price this week ($309 per night) and its good security. The text messages were provided to The New York Times and confirmed by a second person on the thread, who declined to be identified because of the private nature of the texts.
For more than 12 hours after the airport departure photos first emerged, Mr. Cruz’s office declined to comment on his whereabouts. The Houston police confirmed that the senator’s office had sought their assistance for his airport trip on Wednesday, and eventually Mr. Cruz was spotted wheeling his suitcase in Mexico on Thursday as he returned to the state he represents in the Senate.
As the Cruzes were away, millions of Texans were still without electricity, many had no running water and the icy air that swept into the state was so severe that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been activated to send supplies, including generators. Some searched neighborhoods for discarded fallen trees to burn for warmth.
“What’s happening in Texas is unacceptable,” Mr. Cruz told a television crew at the Cancún airport. He was wearing a Texas state flag mask and a short-sleeved polo shirt tucked into his jeans; the temperature in Cancún was above 80 degrees Fahrenheit on Thursday, and in the 30s in Houston.
After landing back in the United States, Mr. Cruz offered a new statement with a different tone from earlier in the day, when he had tried to explain the vacation without regrets and left the impression that it might have always been a one-day trip for him. Speaking to reporters after his arrival home, he conceded that the trip was “obviously a mistake” and said he had begun having “second thoughts” as soon as he boarded the plane to Mexico intent on a few days of remote work in the sun.
“The plan had been to stay through the weekend with the family,” he said, framing the decision as a parent’s attempt to placate his two daughters, ages 10 and 12, after a “tough week.”
“On the one hand, all of us who are parents have a responsibility to take care of our kids, take care of our families,” Mr. Cruz said. “But I also have a responsibility that I take very seriously of fighting for the state of Texas.”
A brutal winter storm has battered large parts of the Central and Southern United States, forcing millions of people to search for the basics for survival — food, water and shelter from record cold.
President Biden has declared emergencies in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana and vowed to send aid. Nonprofit organizations are also at work trying to address the humanitarian crisis created by the storm.
Here is how you can help.
Getting food to people in need can be difficult, especially when the bitter cold strains local energy grids. Organizations that are on the ground and helping feed people include the North Texas Food Bank; the San Antonio Food Bank, which serves southwestern Texas; and Feeding Texas, which partners with nearly two dozen food banks throughout the state.
Front Steps, an Austin-based organization working to end homelessness, is running a blanket drive. Instead of “blessing bags, snack bars, etc.,” the group notes that blankets have a “lasting impact.” The group says that acrylic blankets are preferred (wool may irritate damaged skin and cotton easily retains moisture).
In Lewisville, about 25 miles north of Dallas, the Salvation Army is looking for food and supplies, including gloves, towels, soap and moisturizer.
The Homeless Alliance in Oklahoma is asking for donations so it can operate its day shelter and extend its street outreach efforts. According to the organization, it can provide a week’s worth of lunches to a person at its day shelter with a donation of $4.
The Acadiana Regional Coalition on Homelessness & Housing, which serves eight parishes in the state, is seeking donations to both its general fund and its emergency hotel shelter fund.
Before you donate …
Make sure to research any organization on trusted sites like Charity Navigator or Guidestar, which rate nonprofits based on their effectiveness and financial condition. These sites can also show whether the organization’s goals and practices align with your values and beliefs.
The Internal Revenue Service’s database can tell you if the organization is eligible to receive tax-deductible donations.
After disasters like crippling storms, there is often an increase in fraudulent activity. If you suspect an organization or person may be committing fraud, you can report it to the National Center for Disaster Fraud.