Cracked pipes, frozen wells, offline treatment plants: a Texas water crisis

Feb 19, 2021 Travel News

Cracked pipes, frozen wells, offline treatment plants: a Texas water crisis

DALLAS – Power started returning to much of Texas on Thursday, but millions of people across the state faced another serious crisis: a shortage of clean water as pipes cracked, wells froze and water treatment plants were taken offline.

The problems were particularly acute in hospitals. One, in Austin, was forced to move some of his most seriously ill patients to another building when his taps nearly ran out. Another in Houston had to haul water on trucks to flush the toilet.

But for many state residents stuck at home, the emergency meant boiling the tap water that flowed through their faucets, scouring stores for bottled water, or boiling ice cubes and snow. dirty on their stoves.

For others, it meant no water at all. Denise Gonzalez, 40, joined a crowd at a makeshift rescue center in a working-class corner of West Dallas on Thursday where volunteers distributed food in the luggage compartment of a charter bus.

Back at her apartment, she said, the lights were finally back on. But his pipes were frozen. She could not bathe, shower or use the toilet. She said she had been calling plumbers all day, but one of the few who answered her told her it would be $ 3,000 to come out to assess the damage.

“If I had $ 3,000,” Ms. Gonzalez said, “I wouldn’t be getting food from people on the bus.

Major disruptions to the Texas power grid left more than four million homes without power this week, but as of Thursday night, only about 347,000 were without power. Much of the statewide concern had turned into water issues.

More than 800 public water systems serving 162 of the state’s 254 counties were disrupted Thursday, affecting 13.1 million people, according to a spokesperson for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

In Harris County, which includes Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, more than a million people have been affected by local water systems that have issued boil water advisories for it to either potable or that cannot provide water at all, said Brian Murray, spokesperson for the county’s emergency management agency.

Residents of Texas’s capital Austin have also been asked to boil water due to a power outage at the city’s largest water treatment facility. Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said falling temperatures caused water pipes to rupture and burst pipes, leading to increased water use and allowing water to s ‘escape from the system.

He said on Thursday that power had been restored and restoring water service to hospitals and other health facilities was a priority. The city’s reservoirs, which can hold around 100 million gallons of water – or the equivalent of a day of water for Austin – had been nearly emptied due to the leaks or increased use by residents.

“We never imagined a day when hospitals would not have water,” he said.

For many Texans, the disruption was a staggering inconvenience that seemed to push them back to the state border. People searched for firewood in suburban yards, shuddered in dark houses, made a living on canned goods, and did without electronics.

Others have faced more dire consequences. At South Austin Medical Center in St. David’s, officials were attempting Wednesday night to fix a heating system that was failing due to low water pressure. They were forced to look for portable toilets and distribute water bottles to patients and employees so they could wash their hands.

In San Antonio, Jesse Singh, 58, owner of a Shell gas station, said his 80-year-old father was refused regular dialysis treatments on Tuesday and Thursday because his clinic had problems accessing the drug. ‘water.

“It’s a dangerous situation,” Singh said.

The problem was compounded by the fact that much of Texas still suffered from cold weather and snowstorms on Thursday, as part of a devastating winter spell that also dumped snow and triggered storm warnings. winter in parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Friday night.

Corey Brown, an employee of Tyler Water Utilities – which serves the town of Tyler in northeast Texas – said the temperature was in the 1920s on Thursday, complicating efforts to restore water service . Mr. Brown guessed that half of the 110,000 utility customers were completely without water.

“They had icy water pipes,” he said. “We have two water treatment plants – one of them has broken down and we also have power outages. And then we’ve had a hard freeze for the last couple of days, so a lot of pipes are freezing up and it’s stopping the flow to some people’s houses or causing depression.

Days of freezing weather have killed at least 38 people across the country, left many roads impassable, interrupted vaccine distribution and blanketed in snow nearly three-quarters of the continental United States. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said they have made 60 generators “to support critical infrastructure” in Texas and provide blankets, bottled water and meals.

The head of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s electricity grid, warned Thursday that the state was “not out of the woods yet”, largely because of the lingering cold.

“We’re still in very cold conditions, so we’re still seeing a much higher than normal winter demand,” Bill Magness, Chairman and CEO of the Board, said at a press conference. This meant, he said, that planned outages might be needed in the coming days to maintain network stability.

“If we hit a bump and a generation has to go backwards, we may have to ask for breakdowns,” he said. “But if we do, we think they’ll be at the level where they could be rotating service disruptions, not the larger numbers we faced earlier this week.”

There were other signs of progress. Houston William P. Hobby Airport, which was forced to close Wednesday due to water supply issues, ad early Thursday morning that he had restored the water to a limited capacity, and that flights would resume.

But even as power was restored for many Texans, thousands more continued without light or water. For Angelina Diaz and her four children, Thursday was yet another day of commuting between their cold home in West Dallas and the cramped SUV idling down the driveway.

It was day 4 with no shower or bath. Day 4 without toilets. Day 4: Heat bottled water on a barbecue to prepare formula for Ms. Diaz’s 6 month old daughter Jimena.

The family spent nearly a year diligently washing their hands to avoid contracting the coronavirus, and they feared a week without water could hinder those efforts.

“How do we keep our hands clean?” Asked Ms. Diaz, 25.

Most of their neighbors had electricity on Thursday afternoon, but as the utility trucks drove through the slush, Ms. Diaz was losing patience sleeping in the car and shaking under the covers. She was drawn to hotels or city-run warming centers, but worried too much about exposing her family to the virus. So it was back to the SUV to wait.

At Family Place, a domestic violence shelter in Dallas, power had been cut for two days when the waterlogged ceiling collapsed, triggering an icy waterfall on the 120 women and children seeking refuge there. .

Water soaked their clothes and whatever possessions they had brought along, spoiling legal documents that were difficult to replace. The corridors have become streams. Locals and staff tried to sweep the water away and stacked sheets to create roadblocks, but quickly gave up and hastily piled onto five city buses to seek refuge in a church.

“They’ve lost pretty much everything,” said Shelbi Driver, a resident lawyer at the shelter.

Defenders said at least three other domestic violence shelters around Dallas were also evacuated after pipes burst and flooded their hallways with icy water, displacing hundreds of vulnerable people who had no opportunity. to go home.

“They went through horrible trauma, came to our organization to seek safety and suffered another trauma,” said Paige Flink, Executive Director of Family Place. “It makes me want to cry just to say it,” she said. “It’s a total nightmare.”

Jack healy reported from Dallas, Richard Fausset from Atlanta, and James dobbins of San Antonio. Maria Jimenez Moya contributed to the Houston report, and Lucy tompkins from New York.