The state is reeling from a vicious winter storm

By Rachel DeSantis
February 18, 2021 02:15 PM
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Millions of Texans were left without power in plummeting temperatures as an unprecedented winter storm wreaked havoc on the Lone Star State earlier this week.

At least 37 people across the country have died in the storm and its aftermath, a majority of them in Texas, according to NBC News, as residents struggle to survive without power and water.

While cold weather in Texas isn't unheard of, the extreme temperatures this week overwhelmed systems unequipped for such weather, prompting criticism and calls for change as to how the state and its power operate.

Here, PEOPLE unpacks some of the burning questions behind the panic gripping Texas.

Why Are Other Areas Better at Handling Cold Weather?

In places like the Northeast, cold weather is a part of life, and houses, hospitals and other facilities are built with the knowledge that come winter, temperatures are going to dip below 32 degrees.

Because of that, most pipes are wrapped in material that'll help prevent them from freezing, Epic Plumbing manager April Maly told the Houston Chronicle. Home insulation also typically helps shield the pipes from bursting, which can happen as the water inside freezes and expands, according to USA Today.

That's not the case in Texas.

"Houston wasn't prepared for this," Erika Chew, office manager of Houston Plumbers, told the Chronicle. "[Freezing pipes] don't ever happen here."

In Austin, too, the local plumbing systems simply aren't designed for such extreme temperatures, Brad Casebier, CEO of Radiant Plumbing & Air Conditioning, told NBC affiliate KXAN.

A broken water line floods a church in Richardson, Texas
| Credit: Tony Gutierrez/AP/Shutterstock

"The farther south you go, the more likely a home may have pipes that are not insulated," USA Today reported.

Maly told the Chronicle that little can be done to fix the pipe problem until the weather warms up, and that even fixing burst PVC pipes is an issue at the moment because they require a certain type of glue, for which it's too cold to dry.

Since frozen pipes are a rarity in Texas, people are also largely unaware of the things you need to do to try and prevent them, like turning all water faucets on just enough to allow a continuous drop, and keeping cabinet doors under sinks open to allow any warm air in the room to reach the pipes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, many Texas cities are urging residents to conserve water as shortages persist, or boil it for their safety, The Dallas Morning News reported.

Why Are Gas Pipes, and Not Wind Turbines, to Blame?

Texas is unique in that it's the only U.S. state to run on its own separate power grid — and that grid controls about 90 percent of the state's power for 26 million customers, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

While the rest of the country operates on two different power grids — one for the east and one for the west —a nonprofit called the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) runs nearly all of Texas' electrical grids.

Though Republican leaders such as Rep. Dan Crenshaw blamed frozen wind turbines for Texas' blackouts, ERCOT said that actually, a majority of its megawatt outages came from gas, coal and nuclear supply sources, according to the Associated Press.

People wait to fill up propane tanks in Houston
| Credit: Mark Felix for The Washington Post via Getty

A representative for ERCOT said that of the 45,000 megawatts that were out, about 30,000 were from gas, coal and nuclear energy, while just 16,000 came from wind and solar energy, stats that squash claims wind turbines should hold the brunt of the blame.

ERCOT President Bill Magness said the company was forcing controlled outages to prevent even further blackout, something that happens when power demand overwhelms supply, the American-Statesman reported.

The history of ERCOT began in the 1930s with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Federal Power Act, which put the Federal Power Commission in charge of regulating interstate electricity sales, according to the American-Statesman.

Utilities in Texas reportedly joined forces to agree that they wanted to keep power within the state, and by doing so, ensured that the electrical grids were therefore not subject to federal regulation.

After freezing temperatures in Texas in 2011 led to power-plant shutdowns and outages, the state was encouraged to enforce winterization guidelines developed by a national electric-industry group, the AP reported. The updates, however, were both expensive and voluntary.

Though ERCOT official Dan Woodfin told the AP that plants were upgraded after 2011, ERCOT has faced immense criticism for failing to prepare for extreme weather like what's being seen this week.

A furniture store becomes a shelter in Houston
| Credit: David J Phillip/AP/Shutterstock

"This whole situation is beyond infuriating. Completely unacceptable," state Rep. Jeff Leach posted on Facebook Tuesday. "I am making it my personal mission to find those responsible for this and hold them to account. You deserve nothing less. You deserve better."

Gov. Greg Abbott has said that he will prioritize an ERCOT reform, the Texas Tribune reported. There have also been calls for investigation into ERCOT's practices, and calls for officials to resign.

Why Are Texans Being Told to Boil Their Water?

Though earlier advice encouraged residents to run their taps to keep pipes from freezing, the constant flow has now, in part, led to a severe water shortage.

"Water pressure is very low. Please do not run water to keep pipes from bursting," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted Wednesday. "Turn off water if pipes have burst. Please contact us if you don't know how to turn off water. Be conservative on water usage today. It is needed for hospitals and fires."

Some people across the state have no water at all, while many others have low water pressure, mainly due to burst pipes, a lack of generators and frozen fire hydrants, CNN reported.

State officials reported that 11.8 million residents across 141 counties have in some way been affected by a disruption to water services, according to the outlet.

Nearly 7 million people across the state have also been impacted by boil water notices, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Commissioner Toby Baker told CNN.

Boil water notices are public health advisories warning people that their drinking water may be contaminated, so they should use bottled water or boil their tap water before drinking it or using it to brush their teeth.

"A lot of people are losing water in my area and were told that they would be shutting [the] water off for the whole city with no idea when it would be back, so we filled up pitchers and tubs," San Antonio resident Jordan Orta told CNN. "I went to H-E-B yesterday and there was no water left, so if we lose water, it's all we got until who knows when."

The issue is also affecting hospitals around the state, some of which have been forced to evacuate patients. Others have even reportedly asked employees not to flush the toilet, and to use bags to remove feces.

What Should I Do if I Live in Texas?

Residents are being told to ease stress on the state's power grid by reducing their energy usage as much as possible, according to the Texas Tribune.

If you're able, keep your thermostats below 68 degrees, unplug your lights and appliances, and don't use big appliances like ovens or washing machines.

To keep warm, make sure you're wearing at least three insulating layers, plus an outer layer to keep out the wind, according to the Houston Office of Emergency Management.

To seek further help, the state has also set up warming centers, and the National Guard has been deployed to conduct welfare checks and help people find local warming stations. For help finding one, call 2-1-1.