Texans struggle with water shortages even as 'fragile' power grid returns to life
HOUSTON (Reuters) - Nearly half the population of Texas was coping with disrupted water service on Friday in the latest fallout from a crippling winter storm that caused five days of blackouts before the state's embattled power grid finally sprang back to life.
All power plants in the state were once again functioning, although more than 195,000 homes were still without electricity on Friday morning, while more than 14.4 million people in 160 of the state's 254 counties were experiencing disruptions in water service, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Jennifer Jordan, a 54-year old resident of Midlothian just south of Dallas, said she and her husband were among those still without power, even though the family's online account with the provider indicated their issues had been "resolved."
"I have no power at my house - not one drop of power," the high school special-education teacher said in an interview. "It’s really hard. You are really longing to get a hot shower, eat a hot meal."
Ice that downed power lines during the week and other issues have utility workers scrambling to reconnect homes to power, while Texas' powerful oil and gas sector has looked for ways to renew production.
Hospitals in some hard-hit areas ran out of water and transferred patients elsewhere, while millions of people were ordered to boil water to make it safe for drinking. Water-treatment plants were knocked offline this week, potentially allowing harmful bacteria to proliferate.
In Houston, a mass distribution of bottled water was planned at Delmar Stadium on Friday for residents needing drinkable water, the city's Office of Emergency Management said.
Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in Harris County, which encompasses Houston, said she was pleased with progress in the past 24 hours, but warned residents to brace for more hardship.
"The grid is still fragile," she said, noting that cold weather would remain in the area for a few days, which would "put pressure on these power plants that have just come back on."
President Joe Biden said on Friday he would accelerate federal emergency assistance for Texas and had directed his administration to identify other resources to aid the state.
Biden said he would meet with the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) later on Friday and ask him to issue a major disaster declaration to speed up federal aid.
"God willing, it will bring a lot of relief to a lot of Texans," Biden told reporters at the White House.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott confirmed that all power-generating plants in the state were online as of Thursday afternoon. He urged lawmakers to pass legislation to ensure the energy grid was prepared for cold weather in the future.
"What happened this week to our fellow Texans is absolutely unacceptable and can never be replicated again," Abbott told an afternoon news conference.
The governor lashed out at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), a cooperative responsible for 90% of the state's electricity, which he said had told officials before the storm that the grid was prepared for the cold weather.
ERCOT said it expected to come out of emergency conditions on Friday after no power outages were needed overnight.
"There is enough generation on the electric system to allow us to begin to return to more normal operating conditions," Dan Woodfin, the operator's senior director of system operations, said in a statement on Friday.
The lack of power has cut off water supplies for millions, further strained hospitals' ability to treat patients amid a pandemic, and isolated vulnerable communities, with frozen roads still impassable in parts of the state.
Two community hospitals that are part of the Houston Methodist system in Texas' largest city had to get "creative" when their water supply was cut off earlier this week, said Public Relations Director Stefanie Asin. A shower trailer was brought in for frigid, exhausted staff, and laundry bins were deployed to collect rainwater to flush toilets.
As of Friday, water service had been restored at those hospitals, Asin said in an interview. "The water will be challenging. ... We've handled it so far, we'll continue handling it. ... But we'll still need to take precautions," she said.
Nearly two dozen deaths have been attributed to the cold snap. Officials say they suspect many more people have died, but their bodies have not yet been discovered.
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas, Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut, Callaghan O'Hare in Houston and Steve Holland in Washington; Additional reporting and writing by Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Gerry Doyle)
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