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Winter Storm 2021

Texans confront outages, food and water needs as feds issue disaster declaration

We’re tracking the fallout from the massive winter storm in Texas, which has brought widespread power outages and transportation problems.

Volunteers distribute boxes of food at a distribution site in Austin on Feb. 19, 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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What you need to know:

Houston lifts boil water notice

Houston officials said Sunday afternoon that the city's tap water is now safe to use for drinking, cooking and making ice. Residents no longer need to boil their water before using it. The water safety advisory had been in place in the nation's fourth largest city since Wednesday.

Test results from the Texas Commission on Environment Quality confirmed the city's water is now meeting regulatory standards.

"The historic freezing temperatures in Houston last week caused water pressure to drop throughout the city. I appreciate everyone's patience as Houston Water crews worked nonstop to restore the pressure and gain the TCEQ's approval to lift the boil water notice," Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement. "In the meantime, my office and partners distributed almost three million bottles of water citywide."

As power has been restored to the majority of Texans who were without electricity during the deadly winter storm, the state has turned its attention to getting clean water to millions of people who are still under boil notices or have no running water. The water issues stem from reduced pressure due to pump failures and depleted reserves of water after millions of people dripped their faucets for multiple days. Reduced water pressure can lead to harmful bacteria growing in the water. Power outages have also prevented treatment centers from properly treating water. — Rebekah Allen

As the state thaws out, Texas responders turn focus to food and water

As temperatures rise and road conditions improve across Texas, state officials are shifting their focus to ensuring people have enough food and water.

The state has ordered nearly 10 million bottles of water and more than five million ready-to-eat meals they will continue to deliver, with the aid of the Texas National Guard and other partners, state officials said Saturday during a news conference. There are still 331 warming centers open, which will remain available “until people can safety get back in their home,” said Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

Gov. Greg Abbott's office announced Sunday that Abbott, at 2:30 p.m. Central time, would give an update on the state's efforts to get water and other supplies across Texas.

While water continues to be an issue, with 14.4 million people impacted in 190 counties — including more than 150,000 with no water or with nonoperational systems — the situation is improving, said Toby Baker, executive director for the Texas Commission in Environmental Quality. Already, 64 boil-water notices have been rescinded. These notices remain in place.

“I understand the public is extremely frustrated right now, and I understand your frustration. My family, my dog, my eight chickens are on day four without water at my house,” Baker said. “We are Texans, too, and suffering through the same things that you are.”

Local public water system officials can call the TCEQ in need of assistance. The TDEM is also asking residents to help assess the damage by filling out this survey. The information will be shared with the federal government to try to get more counties included in the Major Disaster Declaration approved by President Biden early Saturday. — Perla Trevizo

State leaders hold emergency meeting to discuss spike in energy bills

Gov. Greg Abbott on Saturday held a meeting with other state leaders to discuss the spikes some Texans are seeing in their energy bills following a massive winter storm that prompted days-long power outages across the state.

The meeting came after numerous reports of Texans receiving exorbitant electric bills despite not having power during the storm . One Texan, according to The New York Times, received a $16,752 electric bill.

In a statement, Abbott called the meeting, which happened via a phone call, "productive" and said leaders "are moving quickly to alleviate this problem and will continue to work collaboratively throughout this week on solutions."

Along with Abbott, the heads of the Senate and House — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan, respectively — were also on the call.

Members of the two chambers also participated in the meeting, including chairs of the budget-writing Senate Finance and House Appropriations committees, as well as chairs of the Senate Business and Commerce and House Energy Resources committees.

The discussion with lawmakers, according to the governor’s office, centered on calculating the cost of those skyrocketing energy bills and “how the state can help reduce this burden.” — Cassi Pollock

Federal disaster aid approved for 77 Texas counties 

The White House partially approved Texas’ request for a Major Disaster Declaration, Gov. Greg Abbott said Saturday. The federal government will provide individual assistance in 77 counties, including Bexar, Dallas, Harris, Tarrant and Travis — and public assistance, for emergency protective measures only, in all 254 counties. Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster, FEMA said in a news release.

“I thank President Biden for his assistance as we respond to impacts of winter weather across our state,” Abbott said. “While this partial approval is an important first step, Texas will continue to work with our federal partners to ensure all eligible Texans have access to the relief they need. The funds provided under the Major Disaster Declaration may provide crucial assistance to Texans as they begin to repair their homes and address property damage.”

Impacted individuals and business owners in counties included in President Joe Biden’s declaration can apply for assistance by registering online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621-3362 or 1-800-462-7585. — Perla Trevizo

Dozens died in storm, but full toll may not be known for weeks

Across Texas, deaths related to the winter storm continued to mount amid freezing temperatures, widespread power outages and a scarcity of clean water. While there have been reports that dozens of deaths are tied to the storm in Texas, experts say the death toll is likely far larger. And it could be weeks or months before the true magnitude is known.

“It’s a slow process. We may have preliminary information in weeks, not days,” said Chris Van Deusen, a Texas Department of State Health Services spokesperson. A statewide survey of deaths caused by the storm is underway, he said. But the state won’t have a good indication until death certificates are filed. — Shawn Mulcahy

AOC raises $3 million for Texas winter aid

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is in Houston after raising more than $3 million for Texas relief organizations helping those impacted by the historic winter storm.

The Democrat from New York posted a short Twitter video today which showed her volunteering at the Houston Food Bank, alongside U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Sylvia Garcia of Houston. The city’s food bank is one of the organizations benefiting from Ocasio-Cortez’s fundraising efforts.

While Ocasio-Cortez represents the Bronx, she has ties to Texas, having participated in an education program called the National Hispanic Institute. During a July conference call with former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, she called the Lone Star state “home away from home.”

Texas failed to deliver state vital emergency information during storm 

As millions of Texans fought to survive brutal winter weather without power and water, Gov. Greg Abbott told residents Wednesday to search for emergency warming shelters on Google and to call 311 for additional assistance.

The only problem: Many people lacked internet access, cellphone service and the ability to watch the governor’s press conferences. When the power went out, the state suddenly lost the ability to provide essential information to people desperately in need of help.

“Telling people to Google it is not OK. It’s the result of non-imaginative or non-planning in general, and it’s very, very unfortunate,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, a senior research scholar for Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “And I think there needs to be some accountability for why they hadn’t made the infrastructure more resilient, and also why they hadn’t planned for a situation where the power’s out.” — Duncan Agnew

Texas’ track record won’t make it easy to winterize energy infrastructure

Gov. Greg Abbott called for a law and funding to "winterize" Texas’ essential power infrastructure for the kind of extreme cold weather that created multiple crises this week.

Energy experts said that in some cases, retrofitting plants to withstand cold could be extremely difficult and expensive in Texas. Many of those plants already skimped on such upgrades due to the infrequency of prolonged and widespread subfreezing temperatures in the state. That’s despite a 2011 winter storm that also caused power outages.

Building new winterized infrastructure, though, often adds little to the overall cost of a new project, experts say.

“Our planning is based on outdated weather patterns, and if you use outdated weather, you never expect to freeze,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin. — Erin Douglas

Disclosure: Google and University of Texas at Austin 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.

Correction, Feb. 21, 2021: A previous version of this article included an incomplete name for a member of Congress. She is U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, not U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson.

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