Cracked Pipes, Frozen Wells, Offline Treatment Plants: A Texan Water Crisis

By Jack Healy, Richard Fausset and James Dobbins

Electricity was restored to most Texans who had lost power after a winter storm, but water systems for nearly two-thirds of residents were disrupted, leaving millions without drinkable water.

From left, Trish Cope, Will Conte, Ziam Ghaznavi and Matthew Snyder returned home on Thursday after buying bottled water from a convenience store in Austin, which encouraged residents to conserve water.
From left, Trish Cope, Will Conte, Ziam Ghaznavi and Matthew Snyder returned home on Thursday after buying bottled water from a convenience store in Austin, which encouraged residents to conserve water.Credit...Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Jack HealyRichard Fausset and

DALLAS — Power began to flicker back on across much of Texas on Thursday, but millions across the state confronted another dire crisis: a shortage of drinkable water as pipes cracked, wells froze and water treatment plants were knocked offline.

The problems were especially acute at hospitals. One, in Austin, was forced to move some of its most critically ill patients to another building when its faucets ran nearly dry. Another in Houston had to haul in water on trucks to flush toilets.

But for many of the state’s residents stuck at home, the emergency meant boiling the tap water that trickled through their faucets, scouring stores for bottled water or boiling icicles and dirty snow on their stoves.

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

Back at her apartment, she said, the lights were finally back on. But her pipes were frozen solid. 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 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.”

ImagePaul Chukwu collected snow from outside his Austin home to melt for water on Wednesday. Mr. Chukwu’s power had been intermittent and the water had stopped, so his family was boiling snow to flush the toilets.
Paul Chukwu collected snow from outside his Austin home to melt for water on Wednesday. Mr. Chukwu’s power had been intermittent and the water had stopped, so his family was boiling snow to flush the toilets.Credit...Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

Major disruptions to the Texas power grid left more than four million households without power this week, but by Thursday evening, only about 347,000 lacked electricity. Much of the statewide concern had turned to water woes.

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

In Harris County, which includes Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, more than one million people have been affected by local water systems that have either issued notices to boil water so it is safe to drink or that cannot deliver water at all, said Brian Murray, a spokesman for the county emergency management agency.

Residents in the Texas capital, Austin, were also told to boil water because of a power failure at the city’s largest water-treatment facility. The director of Austin Water, Greg Meszaros, said that plummeting temperatures caused water mains to break and pipes to burst, spurring an increase in water usage and allowing water to leak out of the system.

Dallas residents stocked up on food and water as shelves began to empty on Tuesday.Credit...Nitashia Johnson for The New York Times

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

“We never imagined a day where hospitals wouldn’t have water,” he said.

Ben Lozano cleaned up on Thursday after a water pipe burst behind his washing machine in Austin.Credit...Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

For many Texans, the disruptions were a staggering inconvenience that seemed to push them back to the state’s frontier past. People hunted for firewood across suburban yards, shivered in dark homes, lived off canned food, and went without electronics.

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

In San Antonio, Jesse Singh, 58, a Shell gas station owner, said his 80-year-old father was turned away from regularly scheduled dialysis treatments Tuesday and Thursday because his clinic was having water access issues.

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

Compounding the problem was the fact that much of Texas was still experiencing cold weather and snowstorms on Thursday, part of a havoc-inducing bout of winter weather that also dumped snow and prompted winter storm warnings in parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut through Friday night.

Albert Duston has kept a five-gallon jug of water in his bathroom for flushing the toilet since a pipe burst underneath his home in San Antonio.Credit...Christopher Lee for The New York Times

Corey Brown, an employee at Tyler Water Utilities — which serves the city of Tyler in the northeast part of Texas — said the temperature was in the 20s on Thursday, which complicated efforts to restore water service. Mr. Brown guessed that half of the utility’s 110,000 customers were completely without water.

“They had freezing water lines,” he said. “We have two water plants — one of them went down, and we also have power outages. And then we had a hard freeze the last couple of days, so as a result a lot of the pipes are freezing over and that is stopping flow to some people’s houses or causing low pressure.”

Days of glacial weather have left at least 38 people dead nationwide, made many roads impassable, disrupted vaccine distribution and blanketed nearly three-quarters of the continental United States in snow. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said they had made 60 generators available “to support critical infrastructure” in Texas and were providing the state blankets, bottled water and meals.

The head of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s power grid, warned on Thursday that the state was “not out of the woods yet,” due largely to the enduring cold.

“We’re still in very cold conditions, so we’re still seeing much higher than normal winter demand,” Bill Magness, the council’s president and chief executive, said at a news conference. That meant, he said, that planned outages could be necessary in coming days to keep the grid stable.

Empty shelves at a San Antonio store Thursday once held water bottles.Credit...Christopher Lee for The New York Times
Workers prepared pallets of bottled water for distribution to vulnerable populations in Houston on Thursday.Credit...Marie D. De Jesús/Houston Chronicle, via Associated Press

“If we do hit a bump and have some generation have to come back off, we may have to ask for outages,” he said. “But if we do, we believe they will be at the level where they could be rotating outages, not the larger numbers that we faced earlier this week.”

There were other signs of progress. William P. Hobby Airport in Houston, which had been forced to shut down on Wednesday because of water supply issues, announced early Thursday morning that it had restored water in a limited capacity, and that flights would resume.

But even as the power flickered back on for many Texans, thousands more continued on with neither light nor water. For Angelina Diaz and her four children, Thursday was yet another day of shuttling between their cold house in West Dallas and the cramped S.U.V. idling in the driveway.

It was Day 4 without a shower or baths. Day 4 with no toilet. Day 4 of warming up bottled water on a barbecue grill to make the formula for Ms. Diaz’s 6-month-old daughter, Jimena.

The family has spent nearly a year zealously washing their hands to avoid contracting the coronavirus, and they worried that a week without water would undo those efforts.

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

Most of their neighbors had electricity by Thursday afternoon, but as utility trucks drove through the slush, Ms. Diaz was losing her patience with sleeping in the car and shivering under blankets. She was enticed by hotels or city-run warming centers but worried too much about exposing her family to the virus. So it was back to the S.U.V. to wait.

In Houston, Mevlin Torry was helping his neighbors turn off their water after a spigot broke on Thursday.Credit...Mark Felix for The New York Times

At the Family Place, a domestic violence shelter in Dallas, the power had been out for two days when the waterlogged ceiling caved in, unleashing a freezing waterfall onto the 120 women and children seeking refuge there.

The water soaked their clothes and the few possessions they had brought, spoiling hard-to-replace legal documents. The hallways became streams. The residents and staff members tried to sweep out the water and piled up bedsheets to create dams, but soon gave up and hurriedly piled into five city buses to seek shelter at a church.

“They lost basically everything,” Shelbi Driver, a resident advocate at the shelter, said.

Advocates said at least three other domestic violence shelters around Dallas were also evacuated after pipes burst and flooded their hallways with frigid water, displacing hundreds of vulnerable people who did not have the option of going home.

“They went through one horrible trauma, came to our organization to get safe and had another trauma,” Paige Flink, chief executive of the Family Place, said. “It makes me want to cry just to say it,” she said. “It is a total nightmare.”

Jack Healy reported from Dallas, Richard Fausset from Atlanta, and James Dobbins from San Antonio. Maria Jimenez Moya contributed reporting from Houston, and Lucy Tompkins from New York.