Millions Without Water, Power as Death Toll Rises in Winter Storms

Published in 18 February, 2021

At a Glance

  • Dozens of people have died in weather-related incidents.

  • Houston was under a boil-water advisory.

  • At least 77 people were treated for hypothermia in northern Texas.

Back-to-back winter storms making their way across the U.S. this week have claimed dozens of lives in at least eight states, as people succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning, died in car crashes, slipped on dangerous ice and fell victim to other hazards of the extremely dangerous weather.

Most recently, Kentucky State Police said a 61-year-old woman who was running a generator indoors died of carbon monoxide poisoning and police in Lafayette, Louisiana, said a 74-year-old woman died after she wandered away from her home in the frigid temperatures.

At least 10 people in Texas have died in weather-related incidents since Sunday, including a mother and a child due to carbon monoxide poisoning in Houston, and a mother and three children killed in a house fire in Sugar Land. Three people are believed to have died from the cold, and another in a car crash.

Other deaths included vehicle crashes in Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri, a man who slipped and fell on ice in Louisiana, a man who fell through ice in Oklahoma, a child who fell through ice in Tennessee and three people who died in a tornado Monday night in North Carolina.

Over the weekend, four people died from carbon monoxide poisoning in Oregon.

In all, the Associated Press says at least 30 people have died in weather-related incidents this week.

The deaths are just one part of the disaster unfolding in several states, especially Texas, where millions of residents faced another night without power or water.

Houston residents woke up Wednesday morning with little or no water pressure, on top of a third day of widespread power outages that have left millions without heat amid frigid temperatures, ice and snow.

Harris County Office of Emergency Management said the water issues were due to the ongoing power outages as well as burst pipes.

“Nearly (all) parts of the county are experiencing low water pressure – or have none at all,” the agency tweeted. “Water utilities are struggling to operate in light of the state power issues. This will not improve until more power is restored.”

In many areas, including the city of Houston, those with water are being advised to boil it before drinking. Those without power – 293,000 homes and business in Harrison County alone as of Wednesday evening – were being told to use bottled water.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who oversees emergency management, called the combined water and power outages “a nightmare.” Hidalgo said all residents should assume they are under a boil water notice.

Officials asked that water be conserved for essential use only.

“Conserving water will allow us to save water for firefighting operations and other life-safety items,” the Office of Emergency Management tweeted.

Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport was shut down for the rest of the day due to lack of water.

Temperatures were expected to be well below freezing again Wednesday night.

FEMA was sending generators, fuel and other supplies to the state. President Joe Biden declared a federal emergency.

The back to back storms, combined with the year-long coronavirus pandemic that hit Texas worse than many other states, are pushing residents to their limits.

“To go through all of that and then also to have stuff like this happen, it’s like, ‘One more historical event, and I’m going to develop PTSD,’” Brianna Blake, 31, a mother of two sons, told the Texas Tribune. “I cannot do this.”

Denysea Garcia, her husband and two-month old baby lost power and water in their apartment in Eagle Pass, on the Mexico border in Southwest Texas, at 1 a.m. on Monday. The temperature inside dropped to 40 degrees. Garcia told weather.com Wednesday that the family rented a hotel room, but there was no water there, either.

They went to gas stations and grocery stores in search of bottled water to make formula for their baby, but came up empty.

“I think the moment of desperation was when we looked out the window and we saw people getting water from the pool,” Garcia said. “I was like, ‘This can’t happen. We can’t boil pool water for my newborn.’ So I just told my husband that we needed to get out of there. There was really no other choice that we had.”

On Tuesday, they set out for her mom’s house 290 miles north in Midland. Delays, including a stop after nearly sliding into an oncoming car on an icy road, meant the usual five-hour trip took about seven.

In Houston, residents like Natalie Harrell, her boyfriend and four kids took shelter at a furniture store that provided people with food, water and power to charge electronics.

“It’s worse than a hurricane,” Harrell told The Associated Press.

Water outages also affected hundreds of thousands of residents Tuesday in several other areas, including Abilene and Fort Worth. Water outages were also affecting residents in parts of Tennessee and Oklahoma.

In some cases, it was so cold overnight in Texas that water from burst pipes or running faucets froze inside homes. One residents said he used melted snow to flush toilets. The Austin Fire Department received more than 685 calls for broken water pipes between midnight and 7 p.m. Tuesday.

“Dispatchers are currently answering about 1 BWP call per minute,” the agency tweeted. “We are only able to respond to a fraction of these calls.”

More than 2.6 million homes and businesses remained without power in Texas Wednesday, according to poweroutage.us. That was down from well over 4 million at the peak of the outages so far, which started Sunday night as power plant equipment began to freeze and demand surged. Electricity providers were forced to initiate rolling blackouts in order to keep the entire grid from failing.

Now, no one knows how long the outages will last.

“The biggest variable that makes it difficult to give you a certain answer … we’re relying on ability to get that supply and demand in balance,” Bill Magness, president and CEO of Electric Reliability Council of Texas, told reporters during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

On Wednesday, Magness told reporters the best case scenario would be power with rotating outages lasting 30 minutes to 60 minutes, starting later Wednesday or on Thursday morning, according to KUT-Radio.

Hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning cases continued to rise as the dire conditions drag on.

MedStar, which provides ambulance service for Fort Worth and 14 other towns in northern Texas, treated 77 patients for hypothermia on Tuesday and eight for carbon monoxide poisoning.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Tuesday that at least 300 calls regarding carbon monoxide poisoning had been received by the fire marshal, hospitals and other agencies. Hidalgo called it a “disaster within a disaster.”

The Cy-Fair Fire Department in northwest Harris County said many people were using charcoal grills inside their homes for heat. The department took 14 people, including seven children, to hospitals because of carbon monoxide poisoning.

In Fort Worth, Cook Children’s Medical Center treated at least 13 pediatric patients for carbon monoxide poisoning.

The back to back storms, named Uri and Viola by The Weather Channel, also hampered coronavirus vaccination efforts and created hazardous travel conditions in Texas and other states.

A portion of Interstate 20 eastbound in northwestern Louisiana was closed Wednesday morning.

“These are unprecedented times, and we need the communities’ assistance and cooperation,” Louisiana State Police said on Facebook. “Roadways remain impassable around our area, and we urge motorists to please avoid all unnecessary travel.”

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Motorists struggled on icy roads in Austin.
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Ongoing power outages continued in several other states Wednesday morning, including more than 157,000 in Oregon, 100,000 in Kentucky, 71,000 in West Virginia and 49,000 in Louisiana.

And Duke Energy warned that up to a million homes and businesses in the Carolinas could lose power later this week as the winter weather treks to the east.

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