As power is restored for most Texans, water problems begin to mount

Austin, Texas CNN  — 

Jenn Studebaker’s family in Austin, Texas, burned chairs and pieces of bookcase shelves to stay warm this week. They made it through several days without power, in part by moving their beds close to the fireplace.

But now there is no water coming out their tap.

“The water’s not even bubbling. Nothing,” Studebaker told CNN.

Studebacker is among the millions of Texans who have gone through a devastating week of freezing temperatures and winter storms, only to confront a new crisis: overwhelmed water systems that could extend misery for much of the population.

Leaks caused by frozen pipes have pushed the state’s water supplies to the brink. More than 14.9 million Texans, more than half the state’s population, have disruptions in service, according to Tiffany Young, a spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. More than 1,300 water supply systems and 62% of Texas counties are affected.

In Austin alone, the state capital’s water supply lost 325 million gallons due to burst pipes, Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said during a news conference Thursday.

Mayor Steve Adler told CNN the extent of the damage to the city’s water system remains unknown.

“This is a community of people that are scared and upset and angry,” Adler said Friday. “We’re eventually going to need some better answers to why we’re here and how we prevent it from ever happening again. But for right now we’re just trying to get water.”

In Houston, the fire department received almost 5,000 reports of broken pipes this week, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Friday at a water distribution event. One line of vehicles at a water distribution event stretched for miles.

How you can help the Texas storm victims

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg told CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper” that 20% of his city has no water and 30% has low water pressure.

He and other city officials are worried that as the weather warms the water infrastructure will break.

“We have been sending more water through pipes than we usually do in the peak months of the summer. But … there is no pressure,” he said. “The water is going somewhere. So there is going to be a catastrophic number of leaks and breaks in our pipe system and that is going to continue for some.”

Most people have power again

By midday Friday, the state’s primary energy grid operator announced the energy emergency was over after four days.

“Operations have returned to normal. Conservation is still encouraged,” the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, known as ERCOT, said in a tweet.

About 125,000 customers in the state were without power Friday afternoon, according to Poweroutage.us. About 4.3 million outages were reported during the storms’ peaks.

ERCOT operates about 90% of Texas’ power grid and has come under widespread criticism after so many homes lost power.

“Five days before the winter storm hit, the ERCOT CEO assured ERCOT, and I quote, ‘We’re ready for the cold temperatures coming our way,’” said Gov. Greg Abbott.

Abbott said he intends to ask state lawmakers “to mandate the winterization of Texas’ power system and for the Legislature to ensure the necessary funding for winterization,” according to a news release issued Thursday.

On February 8, ERCOT put out an organization notice about the upcoming storm, which hit three days later. It told power generators to put winterization procedures in place and to “prepare to preserve fuel to best serve peak load.”

CNN’s Alisyn Camerota asked ERCOT CEO Bill Magness why he said ERCOT was ready for the cold temperatures.

“Well, when ERCOT says it’s ready, what ERCOT needs to do is warn generators, warn transmission owners that we see a big event happening and we did that in the week before the storm,” Magness said. “We don’t own the power generation or transmission lines. We’re more the traffic cop or air traffic control on the system.”

Magness said ERCOT officials knew they may have to implement rotating outages.

“And as we saw the supply get lower and the demand get higher on Sunday night, those rotating outages were what we implemented. That’s what we drill on and that’s what we prepare for,” Magness said. “Unfortunately, those have terrible outcomes for people when they have to last a long time. That’s the preparation we did to take that action effectively before we saw a much, much worse outcome.”

Another cold night expected

While temperatures in the 60s and 70s are expected to provide relief next week, some Texans face another round of record lows Friday night into Saturday morning.

The bitter cold has placed Texans in dire circumstances all week, with many using cars and trucks to remain warm. Other residents have burned wood fences or other wood from around the house to ward off the cold.

In Carrollton, north of Dallas, John Mays, Jon Milton Blackburn and their three children had no heat or water in their home starting early Monday. To fuel the fireplace, the family resorted to ripping up baseboards.

“It was either that, or we were going to go after the dining room table next,” Mays told CNN’s Don Lemon on Thursday.

After a water pipe burst, the family sought shelter at their church and expressed gratitude for local leadership providing warming stations.

“If anything, this has been such a wonderful learning lesson for us on how important community is, and how important it is to stay together as a community,” Mays said.

Warnings of water scarcity

Authorities warned overnight that, while power has been largely restored, water supplies remain especially low.

Some hospitals have been operating without water service. As of Thursday afternoon, that included Houston Methodist West and Houston Methodist Baytown hospitals, said hospital system representative Gale Smith.

“They have been creative, from trucking water in for consumption to collecting rainwater to use for flushing toilets,” Smith said. Both facilities, Smith said, were “still effectively caring for our patients.”

In Waco, Mayor Dillon Meek asked residents, industrial and commercial users to conserve water due to lack of supply available.

Meek said all businesses should cut water consumption by at least 50%. He also encouraged car washes and laundromats to stay closed through the weekend. Restaurants were asked to use paper plates and other disposable items rather than washing dishes.

“Our water supply is critically low. We are currently pumping all we can, but the main problems we are facing right now are leaks and high usage,” Meek said in a video message Thursday. ” We are pumping twice our normal daily usage.”

If the situation worsens, some areas may not have water at all depending on water system pressures and elevation, he warned.

Broken pipes coupled with the unseasonable freeze have damaged countless homes and businesses.

Dallas resident Thomas Black shared an image on social media that went viral, showing icicles hanging from a ceiling fan. He told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Thursday that he and his girlfriend were “managing” and that he resorted to boiling water after receiving tips from strangers.

Thomas Black shared an image of icicles hanging from his ceiling fan in Dallas.

He said that many of his neighbors had to go to other homes that had power, yet he raised concerns about gatherings given the current Covid-19 pandemic.

“Lack of preparedness…our infrastructure is just not ready for something like this,” Black said when asked how the water got on the fan.

Black has also posted other pictures from his apartment building of flooded hallways, water pouring from ceilings in utility closets, and iced over indoor entryways.

When asked why he decided to post the images on social media, Black said, “I think every Texan’s blood should be boiling that this is even the reality that we’re living in…we’re in a bad situation and it’s getting worse.”

Gov. Abbott said Friday he is working with the state board of plumbing examiners, and more than 320 plumbers have renewed their licenses. Officials are also looking at inviting plumbers from outside Texas.

CNN’s Omar Jimenez reported from Austin. CNN’s Travis Caldwell and Steve Almasy reported and wrote in Atlanta. CNN’s Keith Allen, Dave Alsup, Allison Flexner, Matt Hoye, Raja Razek, Rob Shackelford and Hollie Silverman contributed to this report.