“An emergency on top of a pandemic”: Texas hospital workers scramble as winter storm hampered operations
Water disruptions, patient logjams, overflowing emergency rooms, exhausted workers, staffing shortages and power outages created challenging conditions for health care workers across the state.
Winter Storm 2021
As Texas faced record-low temperatures in February 2021 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. The Texas Tribune covered the impact of the storm in real time and continues to bring accountability coverage as officials address the issues exposed by the storm.More in this series
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Icy roads kept a pregnant Texas woman from reaching the nearest birthing center early Monday, so, the medical director of the tiny Bayside Community Hospital in rural East Texas delivered her baby in the emergency room.
Hours later, the water shut down.
For the next three days, staffers at three Chambers Health facilities in Anahuac, outside Houston, pumped water from wellness pools, refilled a 275-gallon storage tank three times and carted drums of water between facilities so toilets could be flushed.
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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Burst pipes and frozen pumps throughout the community were reportedly the issue, said William Kiefer, CEO of Chambers Health.
“If we didn’t have our resources and our people being really clever on how to go about pulling water out of our pool and refilling that [storage tank], we would have been without,” he said. “The city and the county were struggling with their own things. …. As far as help, I don’t think there was really anything they could have done.”
Hospitals across Texas struggled through water outages and food supply disruption in the wake of this week’s historic and debilitating winter storm.
Patient logjams, overflowing emergency rooms and hospital beds, exhausted workers, staffing shortages and power outages added to the challenging conditions, hospital officials said.
“To see this type of crisis on top of what we’ve dealt with, with the pandemic, and to see how our staff have responded, is one of the most awe-inspiring things that I’ve worked with over the course of my career,” said Doug Lawson, CEO of CHI St. Luke’s Health in Houston.
The Crosbyton Clinic Hospital east of Lubbock took in residents from a nearby nursing home after that facility's roof partially collapsed, according to the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals, which was monitoring rural hospitals during the week.
In Brady, east of San Angelo, the icy conditions delayed the delivery of clinical supplies and food to the Heart of Texas Healthcare System Hospital, causing hospital staff to turn to local retailers.
At Olney Hamilton Hospital in North Texas, staff spent the night at the hospital to avoid being stranded at home unable to get to work.
“The rural hospitals across Texas have faced similar challenges to urban hospitals with power outages, water stoppages, reduced or no food deliveries, but they are making it work,” said TORCH spokesperson Don McBeath. “Rural areas know they are often on their own, at least for a while, and this is no different.”
At Houston Methodist Hospital, officials faced potential problems when patients were being discharged but had nowhere to go. Officials set up areas for patients to wait comfortably until they were transported home or to hotels if the power and water was out at their homes, said Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president at the hospital.
“It is very hard to have people discharged when you’re sending them home to a house without power,” she said. “You can imagine people’s reluctance to leave where they are.”
Those who had livable conditions to return to were not always able to leave in the snow and ice. That made discharging patients “one of our biggest challenges” during the storm, David Huffstutler, president and CEO of St. David’s HealthCare in the Austin area, said in a Thursday emailed statement.
The lack of services such as outpatient clinics, pharmacies, physicians’ offices, urgent care and dialysis centers also increased the pressure on hospitals, Schwartz said.
“They were closed due to lack of water or power, so everyone who needed services from those places came to the hospital,” she said. “So our emergency room saw record numbers. It was astounding.”
Hospitals canceled elective surgeries, waited days on delayed medication shipments and are having to seek oxygen tanks from outside sources to meet a critical oxygen supply issue, said Carrie Williams, spokesperson for the Texas Hospital Association.
While some issues like deliveries, water pressure and power problems are starting to ease up for some, most in the affected areas are still experiencing challenges, she said.
“For Texas hospitals, this is an emergency on top of a pandemic,” Williams said. “They have been on the front lines now with broken pipes, dwindling supplies and water restrictions. There is unimaginable pressure on everyone, patients and staff and families. They see and feel the desperation, and hospitals are doing whatever they can to be there for people.”
Prolonged freezing temperatures led to several problems with water pressure and water supply for millions of Texas homes, businesses and hospitals. That can severely impact hospitals’ ability to perform basic functions, even beyond flushing the toilets.
Several facilities across the state had seen water issues starting on Monday as local systems froze or electricity problems knocked them offline. But the pressures intensified as residents’ pipes burst, pumping stations froze, boil notices went out and local officials warned residents to stop dripping their faucets to conserve water.
“Water is key to our ability to power the hospitals,” said Lawson, the St. Luke’s CEO in Houston. “It is key to our ability to keep air flowing through our systems and to cool many of our medical devices. So when water is lost or we’re not able to access a steady supply of water, services in the hospital can be impacted.”
Hospitals in both urban and rural areas reported having tankers bring water in to bring up supply and energize water pressure.
At St. David’s South Austin Medical Center, officials transferred 30 patients on Wednesday to other facilities “out of caution” after citywide water issues caused three facilities in the area to lose water pressure, Huffstutler said.
At the South Austin facility, the facility’s heating system, like many hospitals, uses boilers and experienced problems when the pressure dropped, Huffstutler said.
“We were able to get a water truck in to alleviate the issues on the heating system,” he said. “With the water truck and the recirculation of water in the chillers, we were able to create a closed-loop system in the hospital to keep it warm.”
Similar issues were reported at some Arlington and Dallas hospitals as well.
At Houston Methodist West in Houston, staffers collected rainwater in big gray laundry carts on Tuesday and used it to fill buckets for toilet flushing when the water pressure dropped, Schwartz said.
The Dimmit Regional Hospital, a 48-bed facility in Carrizo Springs in South Texas, had no running water in the hospital and was using bottled water for drinking, McBeath said.
In South Texas, water problems temporarily shut down laboratory operations at the Uvalde Memorial Hospital after electricity problems in the city shut down the local water pumps. Pool water was being used to flush toilets at the Refugio County Memorial Hospital, McBeath said.
At CHI St. Luke's Health - The Vintage Hospital in Houston, officials were just hours from shutting down the hospital altogether on Wednesday afternoon until water tankers arrived, Lawson said.
“I’ve only had about three points in my career that we’ve had to actually access tankers of water to ensure that a hospital’s systems remained operational,” Lawson said. “That was one of those days.”
Disclosure: Texas Hospital Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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