• The Star Staff

Desperate for light and warmth, Texans see no end for winter storm

By Maria Jimenez Moya, Campbell Robertson and Allyson Waller

Halfway through the week that Texas froze over, everything seemed to be in a state of frigid chaos.

Some homes had no water at all while others watched it gush from burst pipes into their hallways and living rooms. In Galveston, Texas, where dozens had huddled on Monday and Tuesday in a county-run warming center, the newest pressing need was refrigerated trucks — to hold the bodies expected to be found in the days ahead. And on Wednesday more than 2.5 million people were still without power, while at least twice as many were being told to boil their water.

The onslaught of winter was far from finished. In central Texas, where many roads have already been impassible for days, another barrage of sleet and snow was expected late into Wednesday evening. The new storm was forecast to march toward the Mid-Atlantic states, hitting parts of North Carolina and Virginia that are already laboring under the ice from the last storm.

In Houston, Catherine Saenz and her family, like most of their neighbors, have had no power or water for days, as the city remains in the grip of the fiercest winter in memory. But they are fortunate: They have a fireplace.

Even fireplaces have to be fed, though, and to keep the two parents, two daughters and two grandmothers from freezing, her husband has spent hours in the afternoon scouring the neighborhood for fallen trees and rotten wood.

As the storm moved east, Duke Energy warned its customers in the Carolinas that there could be 1 million power outages in the days ahead. Maryland’s governor, Larry Hogan, gave a similar warning, telling residents to keep their phones charged and to prepare themselves for the coming snow and ice.

Already, at least 31 people have died nationwide since the punishing winter weather began last week. Some died in crashes on icy roads, some succumbed to the cold and others were killed when desperate attempts at finding some warmth turned deadly.

Across the country, homes were still without power — more than 150,000 outages in Oregon, 111,000 in Louisiana and 88,000 in Kentucky as of Wednesday afternoon — but nowhere was it as bad as it is in Texas. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s power grid, said Wednesday that about 700,000 homes had electricity restored overnight but that more than 2.6 million customers were still without power. The Houston mayor’s office posted on Twitter Wednesday that the power outages there would “likely last another few days.”

During a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott said there remained a lack of power within the electrical grid. “Every source of power that the state of Texas has been compromised,” Abbott said, from coal and renewable energy to nuclear power.

He signed an executive order Wednesday directing natural gas providers to halt all shipments of gas outside the state, ordering them to instead direct those sales to Texas power generators.

W. Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, said several state agencies have been working together to meet the demands of nursing homes, hospitals and dialysis centers, which have reported a variety of problems including water main breaks and oxygen shortages. As another storm moves in, the state increased the number of warming centers to more than 300.

Water has also emerged as a major problem, with almost 7 million Texans under a boil water advisory, and about 263,000 people affected by nonfunctioning water providers.

The crisis highlighted a deeper warning for power systems throughout the country. Electric grids can be engineered to handle a wide range of severe conditions — as long as grid operators can reliably predict the dangers ahead. But as climate change accelerates, many electric grids will face novel and extreme weather events that go beyond the historical conditions those grids were designed for, putting the systems at risk of catastrophic failure.

In a sign of just how fundamental the needs are in Texas, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent blankets, bottled water and meals, in addition to 60 generators, to help the state power “critical infrastructure” like hospitals. FEMA will also provide the state with diesel fuel “to ensure the continued availability of backup power,” Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said at a briefing on Wednesday.

Despite hard-won experience with natural disasters like hurricanes, this was a whole new kind of misery in Texas, all the more distressing because it was so unfamiliar. Calls were coming into 911 and other law enforcement lines at three times the normal rate, said Jason Spencer, a spokesperson for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, from people desperately seeking advice about burst pipes, asking what the symptoms of hypothermia might be or just looking for some deliverance from the bitter cold.

Emergency workers, many leaving behind their own families in frozen and powerless homes, have had to respond to calls for assistance by navigating dangerously icy roads. Some of the direst situations will only be learned about in the days to come.

“We’re fully expecting that when things start to thaw out and people start checking on each other that we’re going to find some people who didn’t make it through the storm,” Spencer said. “We’ve responded to death calls, we’ve had suicides, we’ve had at least one homeless person who we believe died from hypothermia.”

But, he said, that is likely “just the tip of the iceberg.”

That disasters do not fall evenly on the rich and poor is a lesson Texans have learned from the past, and seemed to be no less true this week.

“I understand we live in a less-cared-for neighborhood, but we’re human like everyone else,” said Justin Chavez, who had been living with his wife and eight children in a powerless home in San Antonio for days.