March 26, 2023

Winter storm in Texas: At least 10 deaths linked to statewide disaster; Austin outages may last another day or more

Here’s what you need to know:

10 deaths linked to winter storm

At least 10 people have died in weather-related incidents across the Houston area, the Houston Chronicle reported earlier Tuesday.

At least one of those incidents was related to a motor vehicle accident, while others were tied to extremely cold weather brought by a massive winter storm, fires and suspected carbon monoxide poisoning, according to authorities in the area.

Authorities also found two dead people who were homeless, and suspected the cause of death to be exposure to the cold temperatures, though autopsies will confirm the official causes of death. — Cassi Pollock

Oncor, Austin Energy warn that more outages are expected

Oncor, the state’s largest electric utility company, warned its customers Tuesday that outages will continue after a request by ERCOT to further reduce its electricity load.

Oncor officials said in a tweet that a lack in generation of electricity means it won’t be able to rotate additional outages.

“Customers, please be prepared for additional outages and stay weather aware due to an active Winter Storm Warning,” ONCOR officials tweeted.

The utility, which serves more than 10 million customers, added: “While Oncor does not own or operate any electric generation, we are ready to deliver power as soon as it is available.”

Austin Energy issued a similar warning to its customers in Central Texas and said customers who have been without power the longest could continue to be affected.

“As the situation allows, we’re working to restore customers who have been impacted by the statewide outages the longest,” the company tweeted at 7 p.m. local time. “Unfortunately, ERCOT is ordering us to shed more load tonight as demand on the grid increases, and those restored customers may again lose power. We are frustrated but we are working to meet our obligations to maintain the state’s electrical grid.”

Texas Gas again asks customers to conserve energy

Texas Gas Service warned again late Tuesday that demand for natural gas is outpacing supply and urged customers to conserve energy as “it is going to take time for our suppliers to get their natural gas wells back online” according to a statement on the utility’s website.

The company provides gas to the El Paso, Austin and Rio Grande Valley areas of Texas and has more than 670,000 customers. The plea comes after a statement issued Monday saying that its suppliers wells were freezing over and supply was limited. But, the company warned, that disruptions could continue even after the weather event due to precautions taken to get gas back online.

“Once the system is operating again, we need to visit each home to check for leaks and reestablish gas service. This makes the need for energy conservation even more important,” the company states. 

Ag Commissioner warns freeze could hurt food supply chain

The state’s top agriculture official is warning the winter storm and subsequent widespread power outages could negatively impact the state’s food supply chain.

Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller called on Gov. Greg Abbott to prioritize gas and electricity to farmers and food processors, along with hospitals and first responders, so they can continue operations. Miller said ranchers and farmers have reported major disruptions as the cold weather impacts livestock, feed and agriculture products.

“In just one example, dairy operations are dumping $8 million worth of milk down the drains every day because the plants that process that milk don’t have power,” Miller said in a press release. “Grocery stores are already unable to get shipments of dairy products. Store shelves are already empty. We’re looking at a food supply chain problem like we’ve never seen before, even with COVID-19.” — Kate McGee

Austin power company warns outages may persist another day or longer 

[1:26 p.m.] Austin Energy tweeted Tuesday afternoon that customers still experiencing power outages might be without heat for at least another day — if not longer.

“We want customers to know this [is] a dynamic situation + conditions are changing throughout the day,” the account tweeted. “Customers should be prepared to not have power through Tuesday night and possibly longer.”

The delays were, in part, expected. Jackie Sargent, the general manager for Austin Energy, said Monday afternoon that based on information from the state’s grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, power could be out for consumers through at least Tuesday afternoon.

“We are aware of where our system is at, and we are operating with the constraints and the direction of ERCOT,” she said. — Alex Samuels

Texas officials call for investigation into state’s power grid operator 

[1:04 p.m] Two of Texas’ top elected officials called for legislation and investigations into the operation of the state’s power grid after a massive winter storm caused millions of residents in the state to lose power for long spans during frigid temperatures.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday declared the reform of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas an emergency item for the 2021 legislative session. The declaration marks the issue as a top priority and allows lawmakers in the House and Senate to approve bills on the subject during the first 60 days of the session. ERCOT is a nonprofit that manages the grid used by about 90% of the state.

“The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours,” Abbott said in a statement. “Far too many Texans are without power and heat for their homes as our state faces freezing temperatures and severe winter weather. This is unacceptable.”

On Monday, the state’s electric grid operator lost control of the power supply while a massive winter storm delivered freezing temperatures across the state. Earlier Tuesday, ERCOT predicted that the number of outages across the state remains high, but was optimistic “that we will be able to reduce the number throughout the day.”

The governor’s announcement comes hours after Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan asked two committees in the lower chamber to hold a joint hearing later this month to review statewide power outages that have affected millions of Texas households during a massive winter storm. [Read more here.— Alex Samuels and Cassandra Pollock

Cities across the state issue boil-water notices after power outages

[1:40 p.m.] Cities across Texas — including Fort Worth, Corpus Christi, Abilene and San Angelo — have issued boil-water notices or other water-related warnings to residents. Affected Texans should conserve water when possible, and boil water for at least two minutes and cool it before usage to kill harmful bacteria.

Due to low water pressure, freezing temperatures and limited power supply, many treatment centers and suppliers have been unable to provide adequate water flow across the state.

Fort Worth expanded a boil-water notice Tuesday morning to include more than 200,000 homes after numerous outages at treatment pumping facilities across its system.

Corpus Christi experienced a water main break, also affecting Calallen and Flour Bluff residents, and is under a boil-water order.

Abilene has shut off all water service after power outages affected all three of its water treatment plants, and the city doesn’t know when the system will be restored again. Once back, a boil-water notice will be in effect.

Because of a water main break in San Angelo, city officials are urging residents to avoid nonessential water usage. Those in the PaulAnn neighborhood have been told to not drink the water at all.

After a prolonged outage at a water treatment plant, Pflugerville issued a boil-water notice Monday night. Officials warned water might begin to run out and suggested collecting enough gallons for household members ahead of time.

Residents of Kyle and Buda have also been asked to suspend water usage after water suppliers lost power. Kyle is close to running out of water. — Marissa Martinez

McAllen is shipping its water to help nearby municipalities 

[2:37 p.m.] The City of McAllen is shipping water from its municipal supply to some residents in nearby municipalities as power outages and sub-freezing temperatures have left some Texans in that area without.

City of McAllen spokesperson Xochitl Mora said the city has shipped water to Mission and Sharyland, though it’s unclear how many residents are affected due to power outages or frozen pipes, or both.

It’s unclear how long McAllen the water deliveries will last but Mora said as of Tuesday afternoon they were ongoing as long as that area remains affected by the winter storm.

As of Tuesday afternoon more than a third of about 315,000 Hidalgo County energy customers were out of power, the McAllen Monitor reported. An additional 39,000 in Cameron County were without power, as were about 3,011 in Willacy County, according to the newspaper. — Julián Aguilar

Natural gas provider warns of potential shortage for Austin, El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley

[11:45 a.m.] Texas Gas Service, which provides natural gas to Austin, El Paso, the Rio Grande Valley and other parts of the state, warned Tuesday of potential natural gas shortages during the winter storm.

In an email, the provider said it had very few outages by Tuesday morning but urged users to conserve gas to prevent future shortages. It asked people to lower their thermostats and water heater temperatures and to seal gaps in doorways and window frames with towels. The company also asked residents not to do laundry and to close blinds and curtains to keep in heat.

“As of this morning, our suppliers of natural gas are experiencing freezing gas wells due to the duration of the extreme cold. This is impacting the amount of gas they are able to provide to us,” the email explained.

“With below freezing temperatures forecast through the end of the week, we are planning for shortages and putting measures in place to keep gas service to our customers and critical facilities,” the provider said. — Jolie McCullough

ERCOT: Some customers should have power restored this afternoon

[11:30 a.m.] The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s power grid, said Tuesday morning that the number of outages across the state remains high, but that it’s optimistic “that we will be able to reduce the number throughout the day.” Just after 9 a.m. Tuesday, the grid operator said on Twitter that additional wind, solar power and thermal power generators have indicated “that they expect to become available.”

“But, the amount we restore will depend on how much generation is actually able to come online,” ERCOT said.

The number of businesses and homes without power was reportedly around 4 million Tuesday morning. Temperatures across the state remained extremely low for Texas. It was in the teens in Houston and Austin and around 10 degrees in Dallas at around 9:45 a.m.

At around 11:30 a.m., ERCOT tweeted that power generation availability was improving in the state. In the previous hour, it said, it had directed local power providers to restore power to about 400,000 households. — Matthew Watkins

Phelan asks House committees to review statewide blackouts 

[10:20 a.m.] Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan has asked two committees in the lower chamber to hold a joint hearing later this month to review statewide power outages that have affected millions of Texas households during a massive winter storm.

Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, requested that the House State Affairs and Energy Resources committees convene Feb. 25.

On Monday, the state’s electric grid operator lost control of the power supply, leaving roughly 2 million Texas households without heat or other electric appliances. The operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, began implementing rolling blackouts early Monday that were intended to last less than an hour per each impacted area. ERCOT ordered those blackouts after announcing a winter record for power demand.

“We must cut through the finger-pointing and hear directly from stakeholders about the factors that contributed to generation staying down at a time when families needed it most, what our state can do to correct these issues, and what steps regulators and grid operators are taking to safeguard our electric grid,” Phelan said in a news release.

Here’s how to help:

  • Dallas: Carl Falconer, president and CEO of the Dallas Homeless Alliance, said donations can be made to Our Calling, which is managing the city’s shelter at the convention center.
  • Austin: Chris Davis, communications manager for Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, said people can find a list of ways to help here. These donations range from sleeping bags to monetary donations for hygiene and snack kits.
  • San Antonio: Katie Vela, executive director for the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless, said the organization’s biggest area of need is volunteers to work the overnight shifts, especially those living in the downtown area who might be able to walk to the shelters. Vela also said the shelters are also in need of hot meals beginning Tuesday. People can find the list of shelters here.
  • Houston: Catherine B. Villarreal, director of communications for the Coalition for the Homeless, said people can donate to any of the organizations in The Way Home listed here.

This article was originally published on Winter storm in Texas: At least 10 deaths linked to statewide disaster; Austin outages may last another day or more

Sydney Boles