The winter storms that wreaked havoc across the country this week are over, but their consequences continue to play out, particularly in Texas, where water outages have replaced power outages as the primary threat, and the death toll is continuing to rise. In addition, as the scale of the disaster grows, so too do the calls for accountability from public officials, utility companies, and others over the widespread infrastructure failures and often inadequate response to address the myriad emergencies. Below are updates on the crisis and aftermath as it unfolds.
The power is almost fully back on, but Texas’ water crisis continues
As of Saturday, power had been restored for all but 74,000 customers in Texas, and none of those outages were due to energy-production problems. That’s the good news. The bad news? More than half of the population of the state — at least 15.1 million people across 189 counties — are under boil-water notices following the widespread collapse of the Texas’ water infrastructure thanks to burst water mains and residential water pipes due to the extreme cold. All told, more than 1,300 public water systems in the state were reporting disruptions as of Saturday. Many of the boil-water notices are expected to remain in effect until at least Monday, and while Texans may have the power to boil water, that’s only if the taps work.
As the Texas Tribune explained Friday, the boil-water notices are in place because of the risk of contamination when water pressure drops too low:
Reduced water pressure — due to pump failures and increased demand from burst pipes and millions of people dripping their faucets for days on end — is the root of the problem for many of these infrastructure problems. Reduced water pressure can lead to harmful bacteria growing in the water. Other times, power outages have prevented treatment centers from properly treating water.
“When the pressure drops significantly you can’t maintain water quality standards,” Texas Water Foundation CEO Sarah Rountree Schlessinger said. “You got to have that energy come back online … then, allow for sufficient time for pressurization, and then for water quality testing to occur.”
Temperatures finally rising above freezing both exposes and leads to more damage: As pipes thaw, existing bursts become apparent, and additional bursts occur when pipes which have expanded and been weakened by frozen water thaw and shrink, rupturing under the stress.
Biden signs major disaster declaration for most of Texas
The president’s declaration makes additional federal assistance available to 77 counties, comprising most of the state’s population, including the Houston, San Antonio, and Austin metropolitan areas. Governor Greg Abbott had requested the declaration for all of the state’s 254 counties impacted by the storm; the White House said Saturday that it was waiting for more damage assessments before making additional major disaster declarations for other parts of the state.
Shocking power bills following the outages
The spike in energy demand amid the freezing temperatures led to a surge in energy costs in Texas, with the price of a megawatt of power in the state increasing from $50 to $9,000 at one point on Monday. The minority of power customers who are not on fixed-rate plans in the state were thus left very exposed, as CNN explained Saturday:
Some customers in Texas are facing outrageous hikes in their energy bill as a result of this week’s storm, causing one energy company to suggest that their customers find another provider with a fixed rate if prices were too extreme. Customers in Texas have options in how they are billed for their electricity, according to the Public Utility Commission of Texas’ (PUCT) website. If you go with a fixed plan, your price for electricity is fixed and doesn’t fluctuate with the market. However, there are also market rate plans that are tied directly to the price utility companies pay for electricity.
Griddy, a power company in Texas, operates exclusively on the latter. Their website touts that customers “pay exactly the price we buy electricity at” and that their model “beats the [Texas] average 96% of the time.” When the winter storm wreaked havoc on Texas’ power grid, power prices shot up and so did bills for customers on market rate plans. Griddy urged “members switch to another provider with a fixed rate,” according to a statement from the company.
Governor Abbott called the price spikes “unacceptable” in a statement on Saturday, and said he was holding an emergency meeting to address it. (Hopefully he doesn’t try to blame the problem on green energy.) The other issue, as the Verge’s Justine Calma noted Friday, is how the energy costs may disproportionately affect those least able to afford them:
“The ‘heat or eat dilemma’ is a really, really significant issue,” says Emily Grubert, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We know that a lot of people are going to basically be choosing between paying for heating or paying for other things that they really need.”
Indoor temperatures are likely to have dropped more sharply in homes that are less insulated against the elements. When heat is restored, it will cost more to warm those homes back up to bearable conditions. Some Texans might face higher bills as a result, which will take a greater toll on folks who routinely sacrifice paying for food or medicine in order to keep the power on in their homes.
The death toll continues to rise
At least 58 deaths have been linked to the nationwide winter storms this week, from causes including car crashes, carbon-monoxide poisoning, drownings, hypothermia, and house fires. Most of the deaths were in Texas, and the toll is expected to grow — possibly dramatically — in the coming days and weeks.
At least 30 people died in Harris County, the Houston Chronicle reports, including ten people from hypothermia, many of whom were found dead inside their homes.
Texas officials’ failure to communicate — or have a plan for how to do so
The Texas Tribune reports on the dangerous information void during the peak of the state’s power outages, which affected at least 4.5 million Texans:
Many people lacked internet access, cellphone service and the ability to watch the governor’s press conferences. When the power went out, the state suddenly lost the ability to provide essential information to people desperately in need of help …
During natural disasters and other humanitarian crises, the Texas Division of Emergency Management can use the national Emergency Alert System to share important updates, including for weather events, with Texans in specific areas. Impacted residents of the state would immediately receive a cellphone notification through that system with basic information like boil water notices or updates on when power might be restored.
But according to residents and lawmakers around the state, TDEM failed to provide such emergency alerts during this crisis, effectively leaving Texans without the kind of information necessary for living through a disaster. Instead, Abbott and TDEM officials encouraged people to search for resources on social media or Google.
The failures reveal an inexplicable lack of planning by state officials, Dr. Irwin Redlener, a scholar at Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, told the Tribune:
“Telling people to Google it is not okay. It’s the result of non-imaginative or non-planning in general, and it’s very, very unfortunate[.] And I think there needs to be some accountability for why they hadn’t made the infrastructure more resilient, and also why they hadn’t planned for a situation where the power’s out.” …
Communicating the right information to people in a timely manner often becomes a life or death situation during disasters like this, Redlener said. Especially when people lose access to clean water, they need to know immediately that they should stop drinking their tap water before boiling it.
Chris Christie says he has no sympathy for fellow sun-seeker Ted Cruz
The former New Jersey governor’s 2017 beach scandal made him meme co-fodder with the poodle-ditching “Cancun Cruz” this week. Christie didn’t seem happy about that, when asked about the comparison by Fox News Radio’s Guy Benson on Friday:
I have sympathy for anyone in public life with a family who faces those kind of really difficult decisions on a regular basis, and I faced them a couple of times when I was governor. … But I will tell you that it’s hard to have sympathy for Ted Cruz, because Ted was right on board making fun of me back in 2017 when I had that incident on the beach. … He’s taken every chance he can to take shots at people on both sides of the aisle over the course of his career. So … there’s not going to be a ton of people running to your defense.
More than $20 billion in damage?
On Thursday, the Insurance Council of Texas estimated that the weeklong crisis could end up being the most costly weather event in the state’s history, once home and auto claims come in. The current record holder was Hurricane Harvey, which inundated the Houston area with floodwaters in 2017 and led to $19 billion in damage. The good news for affected homeowners, per the Dallas Morning News:
[M]ost standard insurance policies cover burst pipes and most types of damage seen during the recent winter storm, [explained Insurance Council of Texas spokesperson Camille Garcia.] That’s sometimes not the case with hurricanes and tropical storms unless customers have flood insurance or special wind coverage. “When you talk about underwriting, this kind of storm isn’t something that will likely be factored in,” she said. “This is such an unprecedented event and Texas has so many other tornadoes and storms that this type of thing probably won’t be a factor going forward.”
Widespread damage across the state could also put a strain on contractors such as plumbers, roofers and carpenters needed to fix the damage from burst pipes, ice and snow.