Millions of Texans struggle for drinking water following deadly winter storm

Alexandra Villarreal in Austin and Erum Salam in Houston
·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Brett Coomer/AP</span>
Photograph: Brett Coomer/AP

Millions of Texans are facing water shortages after the deadly winter storm ravaging the state caused pipes to burst and treatment plants to back up, disrupting services and contaminating supplies.

Texas officials ordered 7 million people – a quarter of the population of the nation’s second-largest state – to boil tap water before drinking it following days of record low temperatures that damaged infrastructure and froze pipes.

The disruption to water supplies comes after winter storms caused widespread blackouts as they wreaked havoc on the state’s power grid and utilities, leaving millions without power for days.

Related: Rick Perry says Texans will endure blackouts 'to keep the government out of their business'

And while the Texas governor Greg Abbott said on Thursday afternoon that all power generating plants in the state were back online, hundreds of thousands of homes still remain without energy because of downed lines and other issues after a ferocious winter storm and cold snap, and more than 13 million Texans are still seeing interruptions in their water services.

Hospitals in Austin and Houston have been among those struggling with disruption to water supplies.

“We are working with our supply chain to provide water for our patients, staff and hospital operations. We began supplementing our onsite water inventory last week, and supplies are continuing to arrive,” said David Huffstutler, CEO of St David’s HealthCare in Austin, in a statement.

“We continue to work with the City of Austin in an effort to resolve the water outage, but they have been unsuccessful in resolving the water system issue affecting service and water pressure to our hospital.”

Austin Water said its water treatment plants were stable on Wednesday, but it was still facing “significant challenges” in restoring water to customers.

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Angelica Baton, an ICU nurse in the Texas Medical Center in Houston, said: “The past couple of days have been pretty crazy … We had a flood. Pipes burst onto a patient. We had to move that patient. Luckily, everyone was communicative.”

“I’m sure everyone is going through their own sort of hell, but we are going through it,” she added, saying her main concern was for patients needing dialysis. “When you don’t have water, how are you supposed to do that?”

An employee at the Woman’s Hospital of Texas in Houston said all hospital staff had received a text message on Wednesday morning saying: “Everyone – we are on emergency water conservation effective immediately. The entire city doesn’t have water. Please do not flush toilets or proceed with any non-emergency procedures.”

The employee, who wanted to remain anonymous, said he felt “added stress” upon receiving the text. “We already felt overwhelmed working in the middle of an ice storm being away from family, plus a pandemic ... and now we had to make sure we were conserving water just in case we had a worst case scenario.”

The Guardian contacted Houston’s Texas Medical Center and the Woman’s Hospital of Texas in Houston for comment.

People shop depleted produce aisles at Central Market on Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas.
People shop depleted produce aisles at Central Market on Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas. Photograph: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Water pressure has fallen across the state because lines have frozen, and many residents are leaving faucets dripping in hopes of preventing pipes from freezing, said Toby Baker, executive director of the Texas commission on environmental quality. Abbott urged residents to shut off water to their homes, if possible, to prevent more busted pipes and preserve pressure in municipal systems.

At 19 weeks pregnant, Lisa Gerow had been helping her husband gather containers of snow since they lost water early on Tuesday evening at their San Antonio home.

At first, it was slow going, with only enough snow for a single toilet flush. But by Thursday, they had been able to fill about a quarter of a bathtub with melted water.

“We’re like pioneer people, going outside to collect snow, you know, in the freezing cold at night,” Gerow said. But she quickly added: “In comparison to other people, it hasn’t been too bad.”

Related: Republican leaders in Texas face growing backlash as power crisis deepens

Gerow and her husband have been using bottled water to brush their teeth, wash their hands and feed their dog. They’ve got a stock of flavored sparkling water for themselves. Their last opportunity to shower was Monday night, before bed.

“Honestly, I’m grateful that I’m pregnant, and that I don’t have a newborn right now, trying to keep a newborn warm,” Gerow said. “Or have, you know, water to do formula, and all the other things I don’t even know I’m gonna need yet.”

Audrey Hartman, an Austin resident, believes her proximity to a hospital prevented her power from going off, but pipes in her home burst on Wednesday morning.

“My wife and I were in bed and we woke up and could hear water on,” Hartman said. She had been filling every available water bottle in preparation for this moment and considered herself lucky.

“I’m pretty angry about what’s happening to other people. I’m mad at the overall Texas situation,” Hartman said.

The weather has disrupted water systems in several other southern cities, including in New Orleans and Shreveport, Louisiana, where city fire trucks delivered water to several hospitals and bottled water was being brought in for patients and staff, the Shreveport television station KSLA reported.

The Texas congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee loads donated water into a car at a distribution site on Thursday in Houston.
The Texas congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee loads donated water into a car at a distribution site on Thursday in Houston. Photograph: David J Phillip/AP

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Texans are grappling with water damage in their homes. Nelson Garcia’s pipes burst on Tuesday, flooding almost every room in his Houston house.

“I saw the ceiling gushing with water. I turned the water off but a lot of damage was done already … I counted about 10 holes in the copper pipes and I wasn’t that thorough.”

He tried to extract water in the house using a machine from his carpet cleaning business but the power went off before he began.

Garcia, his wife and three children are now living with a family friend, hoping that insurance will cover the costs.

Related: The Texans facing blackouts and burst pipes: 'Do I wait for the ceiling to cave in?'

“I have a friend who does remodels and he said I’m easily looking at around $20,000 for repairs. I don’t have that kind of money in the bank.”

Katie Liu and Carl Nunziato had been staying with friends after their Austin home lost power on Sunday night. When they went to check on the house on Wednesday, their lights suddenly flickered on as power was finally restored. Then, two pipes burst.

Luckily, the flooding was under the house, and they were able to find caps for self-repairs at an open home improvement store. “Wasn’t fun, but we got it done,” Nunziato said.

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On Thursday, with their pantry running low after days of sharing, they stood in line outside a local grocery store, even as a fresh shower of snow cascaded around them.

“Really just hoping to get anything, you know, of substance, besides noodles,” Liu said.

The store was allowing customers to fill water from its taps, though they would need to boil it before drinking.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report