Monica Ware, a mother of four, says the broken water pipes that flooded her Houston home as winter storms pounded Texas last week have destroyed nearly all of the family’s belongings.
“We used everything we had on (a) hotel this week,” Ware told CNN affiliate KTRK. “After this, it’s like, where are we going to go?”
While state officials work to turn the lights back on for the remaining Texas households still in the dark and address widespread water disruptions, some residents are faced with damage that could take weeks – or months – to recover from.
“For many people in our city with means, with insurance, this week has been a significant inconvenience, but they have the means and ability to quickly transition and move forward,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a news conference late last week. “For many people in our city who are already on the margins … and were fighting every day just to keep a roof over their head and food in their refrigerator, this past week has been a major, major event and has really disrupted their lives.”
“For many of these individuals, many of these families, they will be in crisis mode for weeks and months to come,” Turner added.
Turner announced the formation of the Houston-Harris County 2021 Winter Storm Relief Fund to help residents of Houston and Harris County.
“The fund is dedicated to filling the gaps that may not be met by other local and federal efforts,” Turner said. It will focus on those who need additional help to recover, supporting nonprofits that can help with home repairs and temporary housing.
The Greater Houston Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Houston will administer the grants, the mayor added.
Thousands without power, millions with water disruptions
As of Monday evening, more than 16,900 customers were without power across the state, according to poweroutage.us. Gov. Greg Abbott said Sunday he expected all power to be fully restored to every house by Monday.
Meanwhile some 8.6 million people – nearly a third of the state’s total population – were still having water disruptions Monday evening, according to Gary Rasp, media specialist for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
The disruptions have affected more than 1,200 public water systems, Rasp said, adding that systems serving “just under” 120,000 people were still not operational.
About 326 boil water notices had been rescinded as of Monday evening, Rasp said.
Galveston and Houston lifted boil water advisories Sunday.
“Customers should flush their water system by running cold-water faucets for at least one minute, cleaning automatic ice makers by making and discarding several batches of ice, and running water softeners through a regeneration cycle,” Houston officials said in a news release.
Austin partially lifted its advisory Monday morning, saying the water is now safe for downtown, the University of Texas, Dell Seton Medical Center and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
Austin Water spokesperson Randi Jenkins told CNN the water distribution system saw a 250% increase in water use last Monday and Tuesday “because so much water was lost due to dripping faucets and broken pipes from the freeze.”
Bethel’s Heavenly Hands, a Houston emergency assistance ministry, is increasing its outreach and expects to serve 1,000 to 1,500 people Monday, Pastor James Lee told CNN.
“The food that we’re giving and the water that we’re giving, we’re just helping to fill the gap until we get back to some sense of normalcy,” Lee said. “There’s going to be some long-term effects.”
Troops from Fort Hood, Texas, are helping provide clean water to jail inmates in towns still struggling to restore water, according to a Fort Hood spokesman.
In Nacogdoches, Texas, near the Louisiana border, three people were found dead Saturday from apparent carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a portable gas generator, according to a news release from the Nacogdoches Sheriff’s Department.
The victims had no power and had been operating a generator on the front porch. Deputies said the exhaust pipe was close to the home. It had melted a hole in the siding and allowed carbon monoxide inside, the release said.
The victims were identified as Deborah Wright, 63, and James Harkness Jr., 60, both from Nacogdoches, and Richard Woodard, 42, from Mount Enterprise, Texas.
Document the damage, leaders say
For residents dealing with more lasting damage, Abbott said the state was bringing in more plumbers to meet the high demand of customers with broken pipes and urged residents to get in touch with their insurance agents.
“If you do not have insurance, you may qualify for a FEMA reimbursement,” he said. “We have had FEMA assistance granted by the federal government and part of that is individual assistance that will assist individuals whose homes or apartments have been harmed because of the winter storm. If so, you’ll need to document any type of loss that you have.”
Residents should also connect with their local emergency response coordinator to receive a reimbursement, the governor said.
Turner, the Houston mayor, said he was aware of several thousands of reports of burst pipes.
“Recognizing that there are many families who are in situations where they don’t have insurance, they don’t have the financial means to make the repairs … their ceilings have fallen in, and furniture and other things have been damaged, and they’re really stressing out in terms of how do we move forward … we’re working to put together a fund, a relief fund to assist people,” Turner said.
A more detailed announcement will be coming “very soon,” he said.
The mayor also urged residents to document damage in their homes in case they can be reimbursed.
“Use your video, take pictures,” he said.
Regulations on food delivery trucks suspended
During his Sunday news conference, the governor also announced he suspended regulations to get more trucks on the road to deliver food and supplies, after grocery store shelves were emptied amid the storms. Abbott said he also suspended regulations to get more kitchens open and preparing meals – as long as they follow the health department’s food safety guidance.
“Too many Texans … have gone hungry over the past few days,” Abbott said. “Your grocery store shelves are getting restocked as we speak.”
Last week, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said grocery stores were unable to get shipments of some products and severe weather conditions had created a “food supply chain problem like we’ve never seen before, even with Covid-19.”
Abbott also announced in a news release Sunday that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits can now be used to purchase hot food and ready-to-eat meals, like grocery store deli foods, at all retailers that accept SNAP in the state.
The state also has received federal approval to allow SNAP recipients to apply for replacement benefits for food that was lost or destroyed in the storms.
State officials working to address ‘skyrocketing energy bills’
DeAndre Upshaw said the normal February power bill for his 900-square foot townhome in the Dallas area is around $80. Because of the cold weather, he expected his bill would be higher – perhaps $300-$400, he said Monday on CNN.
“Never in any stretch of the imagination did I think $6,700 would be what they charged me,” he said.
He says some friends with automatic payments on their power bills had their checking accounts wiped out by sky-high bills.
“They can’t pay their rent,” Upshaw said. “They are dealing … with water pipe and life issues.”
Abbott said the state Public Utility Commission issued a moratorium on disconnections for nonpayment.
The commission also will restrict electricity providers from sending customer invoices, the governor added.
“Texans who have suffered through days of freezing cold without power should not be subjected to skyrocketing energy bills due to a spike in the energy market,” Abbott said.
CNN’s Hollie Silverman, Chuck Johnston, Gisela Crespo, Barbara Starr, Ralph Ellis, Shawn Nottingham and Keith Allen contributed to this report.