Dwindling food, flooded halls, unflushable toilets: Texas’ university dorms descend into chaos during winter storm
The past week of power outages and water shortages have been particularly challenging for college students living in large residence halls who are unable to see their families or access supplies like extra clothing, food or a car.
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.
At first, the snow was exciting, ethereal, dreamy, said college students who bundled up Sunday night to play like children in the unusual Texas snowstorm.
Then, the power went out. Pipes burst. Toilets stopped working. Food and water became scarce. The winter wonderland had transformed into a frozen hellscape.
Four days after nearly a week of freezing temperatures, snow and ice left millions without power and even more struggling to access drinkable water, and college students living on campuses across the state said they’re struggling to get basic necessities. While some campuses have slowly regained power over the past 24 hours, many dorms still lack access to consistent water and food.
“I feel like I’m in hell, like I’m in prison,” said Texas State University freshman Nicholas Ware, who spent three days without heat and power until Wednesday evening. He’s been living off two meals provided each day by the university and some chips he purchased from a gas station. He hasn’t taken a shower since Sunday due to a lack of hot water and electricity in the shared bathrooms.
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.
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.
“When you're in here all the lights are off, there's no air, you can hear every movement in the building being made,” he said. “You can’t talk to too many people cause you don’t want your phone to die...Sleeping is like the one thing you can do.”
Universities have tried to provide students with food and shelter, opening warming centers in campus buildings and providing to-go meals from dining halls. But many are battling dwindling food supplies, staffing shortages as employees struggle to get to work, lack of water and power outages. The situation is particularly challenging for students in large residence halls unable to see their families or access supplies like extra clothing, food or a car.
Texas Tech University officials told students Thursday on Twitter that campus may be subject to rolling blackouts as they announced the campus would remain closed Friday and in-person classes moved online or were canceled. Texas A&M University prohibited laundry and told students to avoid showers as they continue to deal with critically low water levels. After San Antonio issued a boil water notice, St. Mary’s University told students Wednesday evening that they had a limited supply of water bottles. Students received three bottles each, said sophomore Zane Smith. Extremely low water pressure has also made showers impossible and students are using melted snow to manually flush toilets.
Unstable cell service and the internet made it difficult for universities to update students with the latest information, said University of North Texas student Lexi Bednar.
“It was kind of like a huge scramble of everybody being like, ‘what's going on?” she said.
Ánh Adams, another freshman at Texas State, was forced to evacuate her dorm Monday morning after a pipe burst on the floor above her. She and dozens of other students spent hours in the lobby of another residence hall before she was relocated to a residence hall that doesn’t have heat or internet access. She grabbed all the food in her dorm room and a heated blanket. She also quickly crocheted herself a fluffy, white hat to stay warm. It’s still unclear when she’ll be able to return to her room.
Other students have moved around the San Marcos campus chasing electricity to stay warm and charge their phones, including Adalia Williams, another Texas State freshman. Her Ugg boots —the only warm shoes she has with her — are wearing down from all the wet snow and she’s running out of warm clothes because laundry is limited. She said it’s difficult to access her eighth story dorm room because the stairwells are outside and covered in ice and the elevators were broken even before the storm hit. Texas State officials did not return a request for comment.
When Williams' toilet broke Monday, she was forced to use a cup in an emergency. But she said the biggest struggle continues to be finding food. She said lines for to-go meals at the two campus dining halls are too long to wait out in the cold. Nearby restaurants are closed and the shelves are empty at gas stations and grocery stores.
“It’s pretty much small things like sunflower seeds and peanuts,” Williams said, describing the slim options available at a nearby Buc-ee’s gas station. “We're grateful for anything, but you know, that's not really gonna fill us up.”
At one point Williams and some friends drove to nearby Kyle, a city north of San Marcos, to find food, and ended up waiting at a Jersey Mike’s for two hours because the restaurant ran out of bread and needed to make more.
At Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, students have been without water, which has limited their access to toilets. Freshman Bryce Sidney said students had to walk to the student center nearby to use the bathroom.
“I usually make a trip and like to plan it out,” Sidney said. “It's like ‘okay, I'm gonna go get my meal for lunch or dinner and then I'm gonna swing by the student center and come back to my dorm.”
On Thursday, the school secured portable toilets for students to use, placing them outside the residence hall. They still expect another bout of freezing rain tonight.
Sidney said his residence hall already experienced bursting water pipes, though he didn’t have to relocate. He hasn’t taken a shower since Sunday and has been brushing his teeth using water he collected in a bowl in his dorm room. University officials did not return a request for comment.
Some Texas students living off campus are facing different challenges as they’re forced to fend for themselves without the help of parents or university administrators. Earlier this week, Texas A&M University said via Twitter they are only serving meals to students who live on campus. On Friday, the university told the Tribune that was a miscommunication born out of safety concerns due to icy conditions. A spokesperson said dining halls are open to all students.
Meanwhile, some students in off campus housing who are experiencing power and water issues have struggled to get answers and assistance from apartment management companies.
Aggie roommates Cameron Herring and Andrew Gonzales said they were forced to relocate to a hotel after a pipe burst in their off campus apartment, Callaway Villas, damaging more than 60 units. They said the apartment complex has not helped students relocate or offered to prorate rent, despite the uninhabitable conditions. When Herring posted questions asking for help on a private Facebook group hosted by the building managers, he said the post was removed and settings were changed so students couldn’t post anymore without the building manager’s approval.
“We can understand the pipes flood and they freeze. And it's not necessarily their fault,” Herring said. “But it's just frustrating that they just kind of left us in the dark, and then like, deleting our posts at a time like this? Like, really?”
Herring provided screenshots to the Tribune showing his posts were no longer visible.
Management at the apartment complex did not respond to requests for comment.
As the days wear on, students on campus at Texas A&M say some residence hall conditions are descending into chaos as students continue to go stir crazy, and more off campus residents have shown up to access heat, power and water. Junior Matt Austin said common areas and hallways have been filled with garbage, ovens and microwaves have been broken and furniture mistreated as icy road conditions have made it difficult for custodial staff to come to campus. Regular college antics, like loud students running up and down hallways, have escalated.
But the most concerning issue he’s noticed is as students try to push through this crisis, their diligence against the COVID-19 pandemic has waned.
“This has made people forget about COVID precautions because I would definitely say that like mask usage is way down,” he said. “People have just assumed that that's not something they need to worry about right now.”
Disclosure: Facebook, Sam Houston State University, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University and University of North Texas have been financial supporters 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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