As Texas endured a second day of freezing temperatures, hundreds of people who live in the streets sought live-saving refuge in emergency shelters.
In Texas' largest cities, homeless shelters and warming stations are experiencing high demand, although advocates say there’s still enough capacity to ensure no one will be turned away.
“We are very concerned about those people that won’t come in,” pastor Wayne Walker, CEO of the Dallas-based organization Our Calling, told the Tribune. “Street outreach teams have been driving, finding people in the woods, and police are still bringing people.”
According to Walker, a sheltering space at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas received 650 people Monday night. In Houston, the emergency shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center has received almost 800 people on Tuesday. In Austin, city officials recorded around 500 people across different emergency shelters, including the Palmer Event Center.
February Winter Storm 2021
When will my water come back? How can I get water in the meantime?
We do not know. State and city officials are urging patience — and telling Texans who have running water to boil it. Take whatever measures you need to prepare for several days without water. Officials in Austin, for example, said Feb. 19 that restoring water services would likely be a multiday process for the whole city. We have some resources here, but your best bet to find free water is to check your local media.
Will I get a large energy bill?
You shouldn’t immediately. Texas officials have signed an order temporarily preventing electricity providers from sending bills to residents. The order is a stopgap measure to give officials time to address a spike in some residents' bills. Officials also signed an order to stop utility providers from cutting off service to residents who haven’t paid a bill. Read more here.
How can I get updates?
Sign up for news updates from us by texting “hello” to 512-967-6919 or visiting this page.
I was without power for more than a day. Why are people calling these rolling outages?
When the state’s electrical grid operator began implementing rolling outages at 1:25 a.m. CT on Feb. 15, these were intended to be a temporary measure to deal with an extreme winter event.
Instead, some Texans are going without power for much longer, facing days without electricity instead of the originally planned 45 minutes at a time
The electricity grid was designed to be in high demand during the summer, when Texans crank their air conditioning at home. But some of the energy sources that power the grid during the summer are offline during the winter. So when Texans stayed home during the storm on Sunday and demanded record amounts of electricity, the state’s power grid could not keep up.
Wait, we have our own power grid? Why?
Yes, Texas has its own power grid run by an agency called ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The history is long, but the short version is: Texas has its own grid to avoid dealing with federal regulations. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which charged the Federal Power Commission with overseeing interstate electricity sales. But Texas’ utilities do not cross state lines. ERCOT was formed in 1970, in the wake of a major blackout in the Northeast in November 1965, and it was tasked with managing grid reliability in accordance with national standards.
Note that Texas is not all on this same power grid. El Paso is on another grid, as is the upper Panhandle and a chunk of East Texas.
I read online that wind turbines are the reason we lost power. Is that true?
No. The lost wind power makes up only a fraction of the reduction in power-generating capacity that has brought outages to millions of Texans.
An official with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said on February 16 that 16 gigawatts of renewable energy generation, mostly wind generation, were offline. Nearly double that, 30 gigawatts, had been lost from thermal sources, which includes gas, coal and nuclear energy.
“Texas is a gas state,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Gas is failing in the most spectacular fashion right now.”
How can I stay warm? How can I help others?
The National Weather Service encourages people to close blinds and curtains, gather in one room if possible and close doors to others, and stuff towels in the cracks under the doors. Wear loose-fitting layers of warm, lightweight clothing. Eating snacks and staying hydrated will help to warm the body up. Some cities are providing warming centers and transportation as needed — find local resources here. If you have resources or are able to offer financial donations, find nonprofits who are helping people here.
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In Fort Worth, the two largest homeless shelters were without power for extended periods, leading to icy temperatures inside, according to Tara Perez, manager of the Directions Home program. The city has since opened up its convention center as a warming center.
Cities have also opened centers and warming stations in churches, gyms and community centers. These locations are receiving not only people that live on the street, but also neighbors that don't have heating or electricity.
In San Antonio, where temperatures could reach 27 degrees on Tuesday night, several emergency shelters have opened, and the city is using the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center as a warming center. Advocates are working to locate people in need and ensure that no one is endangered by the freezing cold.
Outreach teams are trying to be careful while driving on icy roads, looking for people experiencing homelessness.
“The street outreach teams have been going to all the places that they are familiar with, where people typically stay,” said Billy Mahone III, director of Community Engagement with the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless. “We’ve had some reports of people that initially refused, but now they are coming with us.”
Leaders of homeless organizations are asking Texans to be proactive and look out in their neighborhoods for anyone that might be in risk. “Our street outreach teams can help some, but we are getting hundreds of calls,” Walker said. “The best option right now is to call the police, because this is a life-threatening situation.”
Since the pandemic began, homeless organizations have had to balance providing space to shelter with the necessity of social distancing. Regular shelters had to reduce capacity and many cities have rented hotel rooms to supply additional needs.
“The center has a good amount of space to fit people. The cots are generally spaced out as much as they can be and of course they’ve asked everyone to mask up. In general people have adhered to those guidelines,” said Sean Quitzau, who is working at the George R. Brown Convention Center and is an outreach team lead at SEARCH, a Houston-based organization.
Homeless organization leaders said that no one will be denied space in these emergency shelters and they are also working to provide blankets, food and water. Most organizations interviewed by the Tribune said financial donations were more effective than gifts of clothes or blankets, because the money allows them to buy items in bulk and according to the specific needs they identify.
“The cost of this event financially for nonprofits is extreme,” Walker said. “I would encourage everyone to support their local homeless nonprofits and make a donation. Our resources are very limited and the needs are big.”
Advocates are also worried that icy streets might make it more difficult to transport people experiencing homelessness, as well as staff and supplies. In San Antonio’s downtown area, organizations like Corazon Ministries and the First Baptist Church are seeking nearby volunteers to supplement their ranks while staff are unable to travel safely.
“Because of the ongoing pandemic, we are going to hit a record need for assistance,” said Becky Wach, executive director of the Salvation Army North Texas. “Financial assistance for rent, utilities and medication will still be available. And when it’s safe to travel, our food distribution centers will be available for drive thru service again.”
Over at the George R. Brown Convention Center, Sean Quitzau is keeping busy, helping people settle in for the night and then sharing resources on how they can access housing, get their Social Security or book health care appointments.
“We are meeting people where they are,” Quitzau said. “There’s a lot of people experiencing homelessness in one place. We can often open the door to them and allow them to walk through it to get what they need.”