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Power restored to more Texas residents, but water crisis persists during deep freeze

Power was restored to more homes and businesses in Texas on Thursday after a deadly blast of winter this week overwhelmed the electrical grid and left millions shivering in the cold. But the crisis is far from over, with many people still in need of safe drinking water.

Extreme weather blamed for deaths of at least 40 people, some while trying to keep warm

Donated water is distributed to residents in Houston on Thursday. Texas authorities have ordered millions of residents to boil tap water before drinking it, following record low temperatures that damaged infrastructure and pipes. (David J. Phillip/The Associated Press)

Power was restored to more homes and businesses in Texas on Thursday after a deadly blast of winter this week overwhelmed the electrical grid and left millions shivering in the cold. But the crisis is far from over, with many people still in need of safe drinking water.

Fewer than a half million homes remained without electricity, although utility officials said limited rolling blackouts could still occur.

The storms also left more than 320,000 homes and businesses without power in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. About 70,000 power outages persisted after an ice storm in eastern Kentucky, while nearly 67,000 were without electricity in West Virginia.

And more than 100,000 customers remained without power Thursday in Oregon, a week after a massive snow and ice storm. Maria Pope, the CEO of Portland General Electric, said she expects power to be restored by Friday night to more than 90 per cent of the customers still in the dark.

Meanwhile, snow and ice moved into the Appalachians, northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, and later the Northeast. Back-to-back storms left 38 centimetres of snow in Little Rock, Ark., tying a 1918 record, the National Weather Service said.

The extreme weather has been blamed for the deaths of at least 40 people, some while trying to keep warm. In the Houston area, one family died from carbon monoxide as their car idled in their garage. A woman and her three grandchildren died in a fire that authorities said might have been caused by a fireplace they were using.

Utilities from Minnesota to Texas implemented rolling blackouts to ease the burden on strained power grids. Southwest Power Pool, a group of utilities covering 14 states from the Dakotas to the Texas Panhandle, said rolling blackouts were no longer needed, but it asked customers to conserve energy until at least Saturday night.

Drinking water affected

In Texas on Thursday, about 325,000 homes and businesses remained without power, down from about three million on Wednesday. The state's grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said the remaining outages are largely weather-related, rather than forced outages that were made early Monday to stabilize the power grid.

A sign advises customers entering a convenience store that they have no running water. Residents of Arlington, Texas, were told to conserve and boil water after a potential water main break. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News/The Associated Press)

"We will keep working around the clock until every single customer has their power back on," said ERCOT senior director of system operations Dan Woodfin.

Woodfin warned that rotating outages could return if electricity demand rises as people get power and heating back, though they would not last as long as outages earlier this week.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott warned that state residents "are not out of the woods," with temperatures remaining well below freezing statewide and south-central Texas threatened by a winter storm.

Adding to the state's misery, the weather jeopardized drinking water systems. Authorities ordered seven million people — a quarter of the population in the nation's second-largest state — to boil tap water before drinking it following days of record-low temperatures that damaged infrastructure and pipes.

Water pressure has fallen across the state because lines have frozen, and many residents are leaving faucets dripping in hopes of preventing pipes from freezing, said Toby Baker, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Abbott urged residents to shut off water to their homes, if possible, to prevent more busted pipes and to preserve pressure in municipal systems.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he expects that residents in the nation's fourth-largest city will have to boil tap water before drinking it until Sunday or Monday.

Hospitals cancel some surgeries

In Austin, some hospitals faced a loss in water pressure and, in some cases, heat.

"Because this is a state-wide emergency situation that is also impacting other hospitals within the Austin area, no one hospital currently has the capacity to accept transport of a large number of patients," said David Huffstutler, CEO of St. David's South Austin Medical Center, in a statement.

A patient at St. David's South Austin Medical Center is prepared for transport. Earlier on Wednesday, hospital officials said some patients at the facility would be moved over to other hospitals in the area after the building began losing heat due to low water pressure. (Bronte Wittpenn/Austin American-Statesman/The Associated Press)

Two of Houston Methodist's community hospitals had no running water but still treated patients, with most non-emergency surgeries and procedures cancelled for Thursday and possibly Friday, said spokesperson Gale Smith.

Emergency rooms were crowded "due to patients being unable to meet their medical needs at home without electricity," Smith said. She said hospital pipes had burst but were repaired.

Texas Children's Hospital's main campus at the Texas Medical Center and another location had low water pressure, but the system was adequately staffed and patients had enough water and "are safe and comfortable," spokesperson Jenn Jacome said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sent generators to support water treatment plants, hospitals and nursing homes in Texas, along with thousands of blankets and ready-to-eat meals, officials said. The Texas Restaurant Association also said it was co-ordinating donations of food to hospitals.

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Mayor resigns 

The now former mayor of Colorado City, Texas, said he had already turned in his resignation when he wrote a controversial Facebook post on Tuesday.

Tim Boyd said it was not the local government's responsibility to help those suffering in the cold without power. "Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish," the typo-ridden post, which was made as millions in Texas were without power following the storm, said.

Boyd also wrote that he was "sick and tired" of people looking for handouts and that the current situation is "sadly a product of a socialist government."

Boyd deleted his post but stood by the sentiments in a follow-up message. He also wrote that his original message was posted as a private citizen, not the mayor of Colorado City.

Father John Szatkowski, left, and Deacon Bob Bonomi of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Richardson sweep water out of the church. (Tony Gutierrez/The Associated Press)

"I was only making the statement that those folks that are too lazy to get up and fend for themselves but are capable should not be dealt a handout," Boyd's follow-up post said.

Turtles rescued from cold

Thousands of sea turtles unused to cold temperatures have been washing up on the beaches of South Padre Island, off the southern coast of Texas.

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Ed Caum, executive director of the South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the turtles are "cold-stunned." That's a condition where cold-blooded animals suddenly exhibit hypothermic reactions such as lethargy and an inability to move when the temperature in the environment around them drops.

Volunteers have brought some 4,700 of them to the convention centre, where they are being kept in tubs and enclosures before they can be released when the weather warms up.

Although, as this Tik Tok user demonstrated on Tuesday, fish weren't faring much better in their indoor tanks during the blackouts.

'An extreme challenge' in Mississippi

The weather also disrupted water systems in several southern cities, including New Orleans and Shreveport, La., where fire trucks delivered water to hospitals and bottled water was brought in for patients and staff, Shreveport television station KSLA reported.

Power was cut to a New Orleans facility that pumps drinking water from the Mississippi River. A spokesperson for the Sewerage and Water Board said on-site generators were used until electricity was restored.

And in Jackson, Miss., Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said almost the entire city of about 150,000 was without water Thursday night.

A person warms up using a combination of towels, clothes and gloves in the warming shelter at the Johnnie Champion Community Center in Jackson, Miss., on Wednesday. Some people at the shelter had lost power, water and heat at their homes following winter storms, but many are people experiencing homelessness. (Rogelio V. Solis/The Associated Press)

Crews were pumping as much water as possible to refill the city's tanks, but there was a shortage of chemicals to treat the water, and road closures made it difficult for distributors to make deliveries, Lumumba said.

"We are dealing with an extreme challenge with getting more water through our distribution system," he said. "This becomes increasingly challenging because we have so many residents at home."

Drinking water was made available at fire stations throughout Jackson, and officials also planned to set up bottled water pickup sites.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story mistakenly reported that 320,000 homes and business in Texas were still without power as of Thursday morning. In fact, it was about half a million homes and businesses.
    Feb 18, 2021 1:47 PM ET

With files from Reuters

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