HOUSTON: Texas authorities have restored power statewide bringing relief after days of unprecedentedly frigid temperatures, but millions were still struggling Saturday without safe, drinkable water.
“Due to lack of power, frozen pipes, high use at certain times, we’ve seen the number of systems go up that are reporting (water) issues,” Toby Baker, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality told reporters during a televised briefing.
Water problems, he said, were impacting about 14.3 million residents out of a total population of around 29 million, as officials distributed fresh water and food to thousands of people.
Utility operations had returned to normal, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) reported on Friday, but more than 50,000 customers were still without power as of Saturday while crews struggled to repair downed lines, according to the website poweroutage.us.
As the stark toll of the fierce storm grew clearer across the south-central region — approximately 70 deaths have been attributed to the cold wave — US President Joe Biden issued a major disaster declaration for 77 of the hardest-hit Texas counties.
That declaration authorizes the Homeland Security Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate disaster relief efforts and expedite assistance.
The drama in Texas represents Biden’s first big domestic crisis. He has said he wants to visit the state early next week but does not want to distract from relief efforts.
‘Not just an issue for Texans’
Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a frequent target of Republican criticism, was in Texas Saturday lending support after raising more than $3.7 million in a few days to help Texas’s recovery.
“This is not just an issue for Texans, this is an issue for our entire country,” the New York congresswoman said in Houston.
Even with power back and temperatures rising on Saturday, multiple cities remained under orders to boil water before consuming it.
Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston — the fourth-largest US city — has said a boil-water notice might extend until Monday.
In many locales, people lined up outside churches, community centers or in parking lots — sometimes for hours — as they waited to pick up bottled water supplies.
“Water distribution, bottled water distribution still seems to be our number one priority,” Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, said during the televised briefing.
“As of last night, we had ordered 9.9 million bottles of water through our federal partners… 2.1 million have been distributed so far.”
Kidd said the state was ordering more than five million meals ready to eat, though the weather had hampered their distribution.
Authorities were operating more than 300 “warming centers” across the state.
As frigid air moved to the north and east on Saturday, Texans were finally seeing the return of warmer temperatures, ranging from just over 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) to the high 70s.
With the snow melted and lights back on, sky-high power bills were expected to be the next hurdle for many Texans, prompting Governor Greg Abbott to meet Saturday with lawmakers to discuss how to ensure residents “are not left with unreasonable utility bills they cannot afford because of the temporary massive spike in the energy market,” according to a readout of the meeting.
The state is the only one in the continental US to have its own independent power grid, meaning it was cut off when the weather hit.
State Attorney General Ken Paxton has opened an investigation of how ERCOT and 11 other power companies “grossly mishandled this week’s extreme winter weather,” he said in a statement.
Notably, some utilities reportedly had failed to weatherise equipment, including wind turbines and natural-gas pumping facilities.