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World Americas

Deep freeze causes shortage of water as Texas staggers

Residents told to boil water because of power failure at Austin water-treatment facility

From left: Trish Cope, Will Conte, Ziam Ghaznavi, and Matthew Snyder walk back to their homes after buying packs of bottled water and other items from a convenience store in Austin, Texas, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.
Image Credit: NYT

Dallas: Power began to flicker back on across much of Texas on Thursday, but millions across the state confronted another dire crisis: a shortage of drinkable water as pipes cracked, wells froze and water treatment plants were knocked offline.

The problems were especially acute at hospitals. One, in Austin, was forced to move some of its most critically ill patients to another building when its faucets ran nearly dry. Another in Houston had to haul in water on trucks to flush toilets.

But for many of the state’s residents stuck at home, the emergency meant boiling the tap water that trickled through their faucets, scouring stores for bottled water, or boiling icicles and dirty snow on their stoves.

For others, it meant no water at all. Denise Gonzalez, 40, had joined a crowd at a makeshift relief centre in a working-class corner of West Dallas on Thursday where volunteers handed out food from the luggage compartment of a charter bus.

Back at her apartment, she said, the lights were finally back on. But her pipes were frozen solid. She could not bathe, shower or use the toilet. She said she had been calling plumbers all day, but one of the few who answered told her it would be $3,000 to come out to assess the damage.


“If I had $3,000,” Gonzalez said, “I wouldn’t be getting food from people on the bus.”

No power

Major disruptions to the Texas power grid left more than 4 million households without power this week, but by Thursday evening, only about 347,000 lacked electricity. Much of the statewide concern had turned to water woes.

More than 800 public water systems serving 162 of the state’s 254 counties had been disrupted as of Thursday, affecting 13.1 million people, according to a spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

In Harris County, which includes Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, more than 1 million people have been affected by local water systems that have either issued notices to boil water so it is safe to drink or that cannot deliver water at all, said Brian Murray, a spokesman for the county emergency management agency.

Residents in the Texas capital, Austin, were also told to boil water because of a power failure at the city’s largest water-treatment facility. The director of Austin Water, Greg Meszaros, said that plummeting temperatures caused water mains to break and pipes to burst, spurring an increase in water usage and allowing water to leak out of the system.


He said Thursday that power had been restored, and that restoring water service to hospitals and other health care facilities was a priority. The city’s reservoirs, which can hold about 100 million gallons of water - or a day’s worth of water for Austin - had been nearly emptied because of the leaks or the increased use by residents.

“We never imagined a day where hospitals wouldn’t have water,” he said.


For many Texans, the disruptions were a staggering inconvenience that seemed to push them back to the state’s frontier past. People hunted for firewood across suburban yards, shivered in dark homes, lived off canned food, and went without electronics.

Others faced more dire consequences. At St. David’s South Austin Medical Centre, officials were trying Wednesday night to fix a heating system that was failing because of low water pressure. They were forced to seek portable toilets and distribute bottles of water to patients and employees so they could wash their hands.

In San Antonio, Jesse Singh, 58, a Shell gas station owner, said his 80-year-old father was turned away from regularly scheduled dialysis treatments Tuesday and Thursday because his clinic was having water access issues. “It’s a dangerous situation,” Singh said.


Compounding the problem was the fact that much of Texas was still experiencing cold weather and snowstorms Thursday, part of a havoc-inducing bout of winter weather that also dumped snow and prompted winter storm warnings in parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut through Friday night.

Corey Brown, an employee at Tyler Water Utilities - which serves the city of Tyler in the northeast part of Texas - said the temperature was in the 20s Thursday, which complicated efforts to restore water service. Brown guessed that half the utility’s 110,000 customers were completely without water.

“They had freezing water lines,” he said. “We have two water plants - one of them went down, and we also have power outages. And then we had a hard freeze the last couple of days, so as a result a lot of the pipes are freezing over and that is stopping flow to some people’s houses or causing low pressure.”

Days of glacial weather have left at least 38 people dead nationwide, made many roads impassable, disrupted vaccine distribution and blanketed nearly three-quarters of the continental United States in snow. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said they had made 60 generators available “to support critical infrastructure” in Texas and were providing the state blankets, bottled water and meals.

The head of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s power grid, warned Thursday that the state was “not out of the woods yet,” due largely to the enduring cold.


“We’re still in very cold conditions, so we’re still seeing much higher than normal winter demand,” Bill Magness, the council’s president and chief executive, said at a news conference. That meant, he said, that planned outages could be necessary in coming days to keep the grid stable.