Texas residents have been forced to collect rainwater, rely on hurricane supplies and deal with blackouts due to the state’s lack of preparedness for this week’s extreme weather.
The huge storm sweeping across the southern US has caused chaos in Texas, where February temperatures typically range from between 15ºC (59ºF) and 19ºC (66ºF) in the daytime, depending on the region.
This week, temperatures hit -18ºC (0ºF), with Houston resident Fiona saying she has ‘never in 20 years seen snow remain on the ground for days like this’.
Homes in the state are not normally insulated for cold weather, and as temperatures dropped residents turned to their heating devices to stay warm. As a result, the surge in demand for power prompted the state’s energy grid to become overwhelmed and fail.
Fiona lost power at around 10am local time on Tuesday, February 16, and it had still not been restored as of Wednesday evening. As she was unable to heat her home, one of the pipes in her attic froze and burst, forcing her to turn the water off.
Elsewhere, other Texas residents faced extremely low water pressure, with Toby Baker of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality explaining that issues with water systems were affecting more than 260,000 people in the state.
Sarah, another Houston resident, has been without water since Tuesday afternoon. She recalled being told to expect ‘rolling blackouts’ after briefly losing power on Tuesday night, and the following evening the power went out altogether.
Explaining that she has ‘never seen snow stick to the ground like it did this week’, Sarah added that residents have been given no timelines as to when they could expect water to return, or how long the blackouts will last.
Because Houston rarely experiences these temperatures, the city has not invested in standard road safety measures such as plows or salt trucks to make travel safer. We are overreliant on highway and bridge systems that are shut down when icy.
But the most significant contributor to the outages is Texas’s insistence on using its own energy grid, which is deregulated and does not incentivise power plants to prepare for freezing weather. So as power plants shut down, there is not enough energy to provide power to everyone on the grid.
With little information from officials about how long the situation will go on for, Sarah and her husband gathered snow and put out containers to collect rainwater in lieu of their usual water supply. They have covered the doors and windows and are relying on a fire to keep them warm.
Meanwhile, Fiona turned to her hurricane supplies of candles and batteries to offer some light following the loss of power. After taking her dog out for a walk on Tuesday, she returned to find a frozen pipe had defrosted and burst, causing a waterfall in the house.
With the indoor temperature at just 8ºC (48ºF), Fiona and her husband layered up in their coats and the thermals they usually use for skiing. Like Sarah, the pair filled water buckets and brought in wood to fuel the fire while they ride out the loss of power and water.
The mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, urged residents to conserve water supplies so it could be directed to hospitals and fires. Locals have been advised to boil tap water before consuming it, or to rely on botted water if they are unable to do so.
Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, per the BBC, the mayor said power is unlikely to be restored fully for ‘another couple of days’.
Sarah pointed out that one of the biggest needs for Texas residents at the moment is to find warm places to stay, and supplies to see them through the remaining days of extreme weather. While her local store had a line of people wrapped around the building on Tuesday, Fiona’s had to close due to a lack of power, leaving residents forced to find food and supplies elsewhere.
As a therapist working from home, Sarah said the worst part about the situation for her has been her inability to provide support to her clients, who have had to cancel or reschedule to the lack of power.
She commented, ‘This last year has been very challenging for people, and this is one more stressor for people to navigate.’
Sarah encouraged those who are able to donate to local organisations and mutual aid funds, such as Houston Mutual Aid, which is working to get support to those who need it most in the poor conditions. Turner has noted that businesses and churches in Houston have been used as ‘warming centres’ to help shelter some of the most vulnerable.
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