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Winter Storm 2021

“Please help us, please”: More than 100 older and disabled Texans were stranded without power in Austin high-rise

Firefighters helped staff evacuate residents who wanted to go to shelters after more than two days of frigid temperatures and dwindling food supplies.

Residents at the Rebekah Baines Johnson Center were evacuated in Austin after the building lost power. Feb. 17, 2021.

Winter Storm 2021

As Texas faced record-low temperatures this February and snow and ice made roads impassable, the state’s electric grid operator lost control of the power supply, leaving millions without access to electricity. As the blackouts extended from hours to days, top state lawmakers called for investigations into the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and Texans demanded accountability for the disaster. We have compiled a list of resources for Texans who are seeking help, or places to get warm. To get updates sent straight to your phone, text "hello" to 512-967-6919 or visit this page to sign up.

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More than 100 low-income older and disabled residents of an Austin high-rise apartment building were stranded without power and with dwindling food supplies for more than two days after the electricity went out and the property’s emergency generator shut down on Monday.

“Please help us, please,” Farah Rivera, 58, a resident of the Rebekah Baines Johnson Center in East Austin, said early Wednesday. “We need whatever help we can get.”

Help arrived a few hours later as Austin firefighters evacuated residents who wanted to leave, carrying them down long flights of stairs, in some cases, to CapMetro buses waiting to transport them to a church shelter a few miles away, said Sergio Amaya, executive director and vice president of DMA Properties, which manages the site.

Shortly after the evacuation began, the emergency generator was restored and one elevator began working, speeding up their efforts to get people out of the freezing tower.

February Winter Storm 2021

  • When will my water come back? How can I get water in the meantime?

  • Will I get a large energy bill?

  • How can I get updates?

  • I was without power for more than a day. Why are people calling these rolling outages?

  • Wait, we have our own power grid? Why?

  • I read online that wind turbines are the reason we lost power. Is that true?

  • How can I stay warm? How can I help others?

Residents bundled up in blankets and head scarves and layers of clothing, some using walkers and carrying red and white H-E-B grocery bags filled with belongings as they boarded buses or left with family.

“We are, right now, going floor to floor with the Austin Fire Department determining who wants to go to the warming center and helping us bring them down from their floors,” he said.

Millions of Texans were still without power on Wednesday, some of them for the third straight day, as the partial collapse of the state’s power system plunged them into darkness during a storm that saw inches of snow and ice and wind chills below zero.

Particularly hard hit are vulnerable residents, those that can’t leave their homes or can’t afford hotels or have otherwise limited resources and mounting medical needs.

Home to about 150 residents, the tower is run by the nonprofit Austin Geriatric Center to provide affordable housing to especially vulnerable populations.

The electricity at the tower has been off since before dawn on Monday, said Rivera, whose organization, the Serafina Food Pantry, operates on the first floor of the center.

The outage means the elevator was not operating in the 16-story building and only flashlights, headlamps and windows were providing light. The complex still has water but no way to heat it for showers or other needs because appliances are all electric.

“Everybody’s in the same boat, we understand,” Amaya said. “We’re just trying to get by and do what we can to make things as best we can here in these difficult times. Our staff has been here 24 hours a day, some of them aren’t going home at all.”

Property monitor Gabby Amaya speaks with a resident at the Rebekah Baines Johnson Center on Feb. 17, 2021.

At the RBJ Center, staff and residents were looking for any signs of relief, with frigid temperatures inside the building, water pooling in hallways and the difficulty in evacuating disabled residents in electric wheelchairs down long flights of stairs.

The food pantry was out of non-perishable items to take to residents, many of whom seemed confused about the situation or worried about the outage, calling out to staffers from their rooms, asking about the darkness or wondering if Meals on Wheels would be arriving.

“It’s miserable. We’re so cold,” said resident Joyce Kelley, 69, who was trying to decide whether to go to a shelter because she was worried about the coronavirus.

Kelley has been dressing in layers, piling blankets on her bed and eating canned food all week, she said.

“It’s a good thing that the hallway is a little warm so I can visit with my three other friends, otherwise it’s really so boring and depressing, you feel like crying,” she said. “But at least I’m not on the street. This apartment is cold but it’s not unbearable.”

Rivera said she spent the last two nights worrying about her neighbors in the building. She lives with her husband in an apartment there, she said, “so we have each other for support.” “It’s scary for them,” Rivera said. “There are people that are very impaired, and you think, ‘How are they spending the night? Who’s helping out, what’s going on? Are they still having a phone charged in case there’s an emergency?' All that goes through your mind.”

Margie Ray, 75, was evacuated from the Rebekah Baines Johnson Center in Austin after the building lost power. Feb. 17, 2021.

About four staffers who were able to get to work, along with volunteers from nearby neighborhoods, were running up and down flights of stairs to take food to residents and do welfare checks for worried families who are unable to get to their loved ones due to snow and ice, Amaya said.

Emergency responders have been called to bring at least one resident to the hospital after a fall in the darkness, Rivera said.

Amaya said his company believes the main generator failed because the diesel fuel powering it froze. He picked up a portable generator from another property, and on Wednesday afternoon, workers could use it to warm up the main generator and restore the service of emergency lights and a single elevator.

“Which is great,” he said. “One elevator is better than nothing. But residents are still without heat.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Austin city officials offered hope for some areas with long-lasting outages, saying the Electric Reliability Council of Texas is allowing them to temporarily restore power to some parts of the city. They did not specify which areas but said circuits that had been out of power the longest would be the priority.

Rivera said the entire neighborhood around the tower, which is just east of I-35 in downtown Austin, is without power.

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