Texas faces heat and water crisis in wake of winter storm

By Melissa Mahtani and Adrienne Vogt, CNN

Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT) February 20, 2021
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12:41 p.m. ET, February 20, 2021

Texas officials investigate outrageous energy bills in storm price surge

From CNN's Konstantin Toropin

Some customers in Texas are facing outrageous hikes in their energy bill as a result of this week’s storm, causing one energy company to suggest that their customers find another provider with a fixed rate if prices were too extreme.

Customers in Texas have options in how they are billed for their electricity, according to the Public Utility Commission of Texas' (PUCT) website. If you go with a fixed plan, your price for electricity is fixed and doesn't fluctuate with the market. However, there are also market rate plans that are tied directly to the price utility companies pay for electricity.

Griddy, a power company in Texas, operates exclusively on the latter. Their website touts that customers "pay exactly the price we buy electricity at" and that their model "beats the [Texas] average 96% of the time." 

When the winter storm wreaked havoc on Texas' power grid, power prices shot up and so did bills for customers on market rate plans.

Griddy urged "members switch to another provider with a fixed rate," according to a statement from the company.

"While we value our members, we want what is best for their wallet and family even more, even if that means helping them switch away to our competitors," the company added.

Now, PUCT is taking action. According to a statement released today, the utility regulator says they have "launched an investigation into the factors that combined with the devastating winter weather to disrupt the flow of power to millions of Texas homes."

Texas Gov. Greg Abbot also announced that he has convened an emergency meeting to look into the matter. 

“It is unacceptable for Texans who suffered through days in the freezing cold without electricity or heat to now be hit with skyrocketing energy costs,” Abbott wrote in a statement. “To protect families, I am actively working with the Lieutenant Governor, the Speaker of the House and members of the Legislature to develop solutions to ensure that Texans are not on the hook for unreasonable spikes in their energy bills,” he added.

PUCT also took steps to make it easier for customers to go with a temporary "Provider of Last Resort" and lifted the typically higher rate associated with going with that option. However, according to PUCT's website, this program is designed for customers whose usual electric company is "unable to continue service" not customers voluntarily leaving their provider in an effort to save money, as Griddy suggested.

CNN has reached out to PUCT for clarification but did not immediately hear back.

For its part, Griddy is laying the blame for the situation squarely at PUCT.

"Here is what we do know: the market is supposed to set the prices, not political appointees," the company wrote in a Thursday statement about the high prices.

Griddy added that it was also seeking relief from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT as it is commonly known, and the PUCT for its customers who were exposed to the high prices.

“Griddy is continuing these efforts and is committed to crediting customers for any relief, dollar-for-dollar,” according to a statement.

The company also said it also wants to "continue offering innovative products and services in the retail energy market in Texas."

12:16 p.m. ET, February 20, 2021

Here's an update on the water situation in Austin

From CNN's Omar Jiminez

Marie Maybou melts snow on the kitchen stove on February 19 in Austin, Texas. 
Marie Maybou melts snow on the kitchen stove on February 19 in Austin, Texas.  Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Austin is more than halfway to restoring the minimum water pressure needed to push water through their system, according to the city’s water utility.

The system needs 100 million gallons minimum in storage to maintain a healthy system, and as of Saturday morning, “We are at 50.43 million gallons and climbing.”

In an update this morning, Austin’s water utility also gave insight to how exactly they lost water by describing how their system works. 

“Our system is a series of pressure zones that are supplied from large storage tanks called reservoirs. When we lost storage in all reservoirs across the city, it triggered a city-wide boil water notice.”

Remember: Austin Water lost 325 million gallons of water total as thousands of private customers' pipes burst amid sustained freezing temperatures this week. Officials in Austin are optimistic they could have water restored by the end of the weekend.

12:30 p.m. ET, February 20, 2021

Houston doctor describes "harrowing" and "scary" experience for hospitals

Dr. Richina Bicette.
Dr. Richina Bicette. CNN via Webex Cisco

Dr. Richina Bicette, associate medical director at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, described how winter weather had caused "a completely harrowing experience" for her Texas hospital. 

"We were not prepared at all. The guidance we got before the storm was that, you know, it would be cold, roads would freeze, don't drive. There was no suspicion we would be without electricity, with below-freezing temperatures outside or that people would be without water. We're in Texas. This isn't a winter state," she told CNN's Fredricka Whitfield.

She said that Texans aren't taught how to wrap or insulate pipes to prevent them from bursting since such cold weather is so infrequent, adding that having people trapped in their homes under such conditions has led to other medical issues.

"We've seen a lot of cases come from this winter storm — including people who have been burned in fires, entire families who have had carbon monoxide poisoning because of the water outages. A lot of people who are on dialysis, for example, are missing dialysis and showing up to hospitals extremely sick, or people who use medical equipment that require electricity, showing up requiring oxygen and [are] very, very sick," Bicette said.

Emphasizing that hospitals rarely close, she described the difficult conditions that staff is having to deal with and how "scary" the situation remains.

"Aside from not having water or having poor water pressure, we're now under a boil-water notice. The water coming out of the pipes isn't even safe to drink or necessarily to put on your skin. We have been making do with the resources we have, but things are getting to be a little scary and a little dangerous, because, again, we're having such a high influx of sick patients coming in. There aren't enough staff to take care of these patients right now," Bicette added. 

Watch:

12:14 p.m. ET, February 20, 2021

Texas mayor expresses frustration with state leaders as residents still don't have power and water

Mayor Larry Wallace.
Mayor Larry Wallace. CNN via Skype

Larry Wallace, mayor of Manor, Texas, which is outside of Austin, says thousands in his city still do not have electricity or water. 

He expressed frustration with electric companies and state leaders for a lack of communication. 

“I’ve been trying to get in contact with the organization Oncor Electric and was able to make contact almost three or four days into the winter storm to be able to find out what is going on, and [there's] still really no true timeframe of when they're going to get the electricity almost a week in of no electricity,” he told CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield. 

“We have people without electricity and without water going on almost a week, and all they're getting is the same generic information being pushed out by the companies,” he added. 

Wallace said that high-level politicians such as Gov. Greg Abbott are a “lost hope” for assistance. 

“I’ve lost all faith in senior leadership. They have proven time and time again over the last 12 months, and for us having three declared disasters: Covid, … this threat on violence that Gov. Abbott declared here and renewed it back in January, and then now the inclement weather.”

Wallace explained that some residents with his city’s ZIP code are actually part of Austin or other county areas. 

“I think we've learned through Covid, like a lot of the smaller cities, and definitely suburban and rural towns that … can't necessarily rely on those regional services that restrict in times of criticality, right? So we've had to create overnight organizations and entities try to overnight teach people these jurisdictional lines and the red tape and how to work around those things to take care of the communities we have,” he said. 

Watch:

11:03 a.m. ET, February 20, 2021

Texas governor calls major disaster declaration "an important first step"

From CNN's Konstantin Toropin

Texas Governor Greg Abbott announces the reopening of more Texas businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic at a press conference at the Texas State Capitol on May 18, 2020 in Austin, Texas. 
Texas Governor Greg Abbott announces the reopening of more Texas businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic at a press conference at the Texas State Capitol on May 18, 2020 in Austin, Texas.  Lynda M. Gonzalez-Pool/Getty Images

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott thanked President Biden for approving a major disaster declaration for the state but noted that the declaration was short of what he asked for.

"I thank President Biden for his assistance as we respond to impacts of winter weather across our state," Abbott said in a statement released today.  

"While this partial approval is an important first step, Texas will continue to work with our federal partners to ensure all eligible Texans have access to the relief they need," he added.

Abbott had requested Individual Assistance and Public Assistance in all 254 of Texas' counties, according to his statement. However, both he and the Biden administration noted that only 77 counties were ultimately approved for Individual Assistance.

Individual Assistance makes federal funding available to people in the form of grants for temporary housing and home repairs or low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, according to the White House statement.

Neither Abbott nor Biden explained the rationale for the discrepancy.

12:14 p.m. ET, February 20, 2021

Demand for a warm place to stay was "unbelievable," Texas hotel manager says

Marty Miles.
Marty Miles. Source: CNN via Webex Cisco

Marty Miles, the general manager of a hotel group in Galveston, Texas, says that water just got back to full pressure in his main hotel last night.

“We took as many guests as we felt we could and still provide safe service,” he said, as demand was overwhelming with residents trying to find warmth amid freezing temperatures. 

The hotel cut off availability at 60%, he said, and took in about 25% of their staff without heat, power or water.  

“Frankly, it’s been the equivalent of camping indoors,” Miles said to CNN’s Christi Paul. 

For four days, “we had basically no power, only emergency generator power, and our emergency generators don't control heat, so we had little to no heat,” he said. “We had no water for two-and-a-half days and then intermittent and very low pressure water... We've had to individually flush toilets as needed for our guests.”

Miles said they have a well-detailed plan for disasters like hurricanes, but this was unprecedented. 

“Unlike a hurricane, the hardest part is that you don't know when it's going to stop. Typically hurricanes last a day or so, and then you can immediately begin the recovery effort. In this case, because of the rolling blackouts and not knowing when the water would be back, it was a complete stop and go, stop and go. … So every time we thought we were in the clear, two hours later, it started over. So that's the most difficult part,” he said. 

Watch:

11:16 a.m. ET, February 20, 2021

NY Rep. AOC is in Texas to help those affected by the winter storm

From CNN's Natasha Chen, Kevin Conlon and Daniella Diaz

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Source: CNN

Democratic Texas Reps. Sylvia Garcia and Sheila Jackson Lee, as well as New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, spoke at a news conference outside the Houston Food Bank where they said they plan to help Texans affected by the winter storm. 

Ocasio-Cortez raised money ahead of the visit and said 100% of the funds will go to five to 10 organizations to help Texans affected by the winter storm.

"You know, when disaster strikes, this is not just an issue for Texans, this is an issue for our entire country," Ocasio-Cortez said. "As was mentioned earlier, disasters don't strike everyone equally when you already have so many families in the state and across the country that are on the brink, that can't even afford an emergency to begin with."

"You know, we really need to make sure that we're getting food and assistance to people across the state, as was mentioned here, at the Houston Food Bank, no questions are asked," Ocasio-Cortez said.

"That's the New York spirit, that's the Texas spirit and that's the American spirit," she added.

Garcia said she was glad Ocasio-Cortez was there to help Texans. She also said she believed the state leaders should have responded better and said there should be an independent investigation of the grid. 

"(Disasters) hurts the vulnerable populations even more," Garcia, who spoke first, said during the press conference. "My district was totally in the dark. And I know people are still hurting today ... we've got repairs to make."

"And now help is here with my good friend Rep. Ocasio-Cortez sent me a text and said, well I want to do something, so I immediately said, 'Whatever you do include the Houston Food Bank,'" she said. "You know, we're from Texas right? Who does things with New York? We always kind of make fun of New York. But this time we love New York."

Garcia also called for accountability to investigate how Texans were so affected by the disaster.

"We're not here to do anything other than talk to people," Garcia added. "The response could be better from our state leadership. It could have been better in preparation, and it better, step up and it'd be better in doing a full independent investigation on why this incident happened, why they didn't weatherize, why didn't they prepare, what are they going to do, and make sure they do it in a transparent fashion, fair and equitable fashion." 

She added: "There will need to be reforms with ERCOT and I urge the legislature to do that. And then should include looking at whether or not to join the federal grid. I think everything should be on the table, Texas did not want to go through this again. They want accountability."

ERCOT as it's commonly known is the Texas state power grid: The Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

Jackson Lee said she was worried for her constituents when calls came in from people, including children, who were afraid they would die overnight from the freezing temperatures. 

"This leaves me at an unspeakable and emotional moment," she said.

WATCH Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's comments:

11:16 a.m. ET, February 20, 2021

Biden approves Texas disaster declaration

From Priscilla Alvarez and Jasmine Wright

President Joe Biden departs after delivering remarks at a virtual event hosted by the Munich Security Conference in the East Room of the White House on February 19, in Washington, DC.
President Joe Biden departs after delivering remarks at a virtual event hosted by the Munich Security Conference in the East Room of the White House on February 19, in Washington, DC. Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images

President Biden has approved a major disaster declaration for Texas, unlocking more federal resources to assist the state. 

"Yesterday, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. declared that a major disaster exists in the State of Texas and ordered federal assistance to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the areas affected by severe winter storms beginning on February 11, 2021, and continuing," the White House said in a written statement on Saturday.

Biden already approved an emergency declaration for the state last weekend, but the major disaster declaration would allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide more resources and assistance, including, for example, supplementing insurance to help individuals with uncovered costs or other costs to make homes habitable.

The White House statement explained:

"Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster.
Federal funding is also available to state and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency protective measures and hazard mitigation measures statewide."

Biden met with acting FEMA Administrator Bob Fenton on Friday and expressed his intent to sign the declaration, which stems from a request by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

10:28 a.m. ET, February 20, 2021

Texans tell us how they fought to stay warm and seek shelter

Across Texas, millions have been without access to power this week, leaving them in the dark with no heat and water.

Hear their first-hand stories of how they fought to stay warm, struggling with burst pipes and searching for shelter.

Watch the video: