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Texans Thaw Out and Hunt for Water, Plumbing Supplies

Power has been restored across Texas and the deep chill from an arctic front is lifting. But the crisis is not over as Texans focus on getting water and repairing homes ravaged by exploding pipes.

HOUSTON (CN) — With boil-water notices in effect for millions of Texans, they are flocking to bottled water giveaways and searching hardware stores in vain for supplies to fix their homes damaged this week when their frozen pipes burst.

Mikayla Courville, 20, said her roommate woke her up at their home in the southeast Houston suburb Pasadena late Monday with snow blanketing their front yard from an arctic storm.

"She said, ‘I hear something.’ And we thought it was raining," Courville said. But a pipe had frozen and burst and water was leaking through the ceiling into her laundry room, dining room and kitchen.

"So as we were trying to mop all the water up, our ceiling over our kitchen falls down," said Courville, at a YMCA in northwest Houston on Friday as she grabbed packets of dry noodles from boxes and bags of bottled water and placed them in the vehicles of Houstonians streaming through.

A YMCA employee, Courville said she had picked up extra shifts this week and the next to help her father, who owns the home she lives in, pay for repairs as his insurer said they won't repair damage caused by burst pipes. They consider the freezing weather that buckled the pipes an act of God.

"On social media I saw a lot of people's ceilings, sheetrock and insulation came down. So that's why I didn't really feel too bad because it wasn't only happening to me," Courville said. “But it was like dang, it still sucks you know because we have a big hole in our house."

Governor Greg Abbott called on the leaders of the state's power grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, to resign this week after they ordered prolonged blackouts, which lasted more than three days for some houses, to preserve a grid pushed within minutes of a catastrophe. ERCOT officials say inaction could have resulted in weeks-long outages when a spike in demand from people cranking up their heaters combined with a dip in supply as the cold weather caused power plants' equipment to malfunction.

Now that power has been restored to most of Texas, with only localized outages from downed power lines, and temperatures have risen to the 40s after several frigid days, people with plumbing issues are struggling to find replacement pipe.

Miranda Bernal, 19, said she and her parents have been boiling water in buckets and bathing with it in the shower because a fractured pipe has cut their home's water supply.

They've been to hardware stores around their home in North Houston and surrounding suburbs with no luck.

"We can't find any pipe. That's the problem. No pipe. ... . I have some friends who are helping and they are saying the warehouses are stripped. So it's just been crazy," she said.

Susan Hernandez came to the YMCA with her mother-in-law and they were both happy to receive a couple bags of 12-ounce water bottles. Like Bernal and Courville, her home's pipes busted.

She said she and her husband had ordered pipes off Amazon. "But they won't get here until next Thursday.”

Plumbers are stretched thin with some doing as many as 180 jobs in a day.

To assist with the massive need, Abbott said Thursday he has authorized the state plumbing board to give provisional licenses to out-of-state plumbers and allow former plumbers whose licenses have lapsed to apply to renew them.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott leaves a news conference after speaking about the winter storm at the State Operations Center, Thursday Feb. 18, 2021, in Austin, Texas. ( Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

While the governor is placing the blame on ERCOT for not preparing the grid for the frigid weather, and has made reforms of the organization a priority for the state Legislature this session, Democrats say he is also culpable.

On a Zoom call Friday, Democratic members of Texas’ congressional delegation blasted Abbott and other Republican state officials for the way they've managed the state's power grid.

Critics say to get around oversight by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Texas set up its grid to operate independently from the grids of other states, leaving Texans on a frigid island when they needed an infusion of electricity from outside sources more than ever.

Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said Texas needs to connect its grid to an interstate system by which it can get power from beyond neighboring Oklahoma and Arkansas, which also suffered through extreme cold and electricity disruptions this week.

She said Colorado offered to send power to Texas but had no way to get it there.

Lee said throughout this crisis, Abbott has not reached out to any Democrats representing Texas in Congress. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, also a Democrat, said in an interview with MSNBC Thursday night that he had not spoken to the governor this week either.

"A conference call from the chief of this state could have provided a lot of help for cities and counties," Lee said.

Julián Castro, who served as secretary of housing and urban development under Barack Obama, said Texans need to vote out Abbott, who is up for reelection in 2022, and other Republicans.

"At the state level we need leadership change in the years to come because that's the only way to ensure basic functions like this of the government actually run smoothly,” he said. “You put Republicans in charge they hate government, they don't believe in it and they've shown time and again they are incompetent in terms of running it.”

Castro said Abbott and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, his fellow Republican, only care about their own political careers instead of people they are supposed to serve.

After news broke that Cruz had flown to Cancun on Wednesday to vacation with his daughters as Texans struggled with the cold and power outages, he flew back Thursday and faced reporters on the front lawn of his Houston home.

“In hindsight, I wouldn’t have done it,” Cruz said, adding he and his staff are in "constant communication with state and local leaders to get to the bottom of what happened in Texas."

Cruz is being vilified on social media and in the press as former Democratic congressman Beto O'Rourke of El Paso, who narrowly lost to Cruz in a 2018 bid to unseat the senator, is winning accolades for his humanitarian work.

O'Rourke organized volunteers who ran a phone bank this week he said made more than 784,000 phone calls to Texas seniors to check if they needed food, water or shelter.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, who is seen by some Texas Republicans as a danger to the state's oil and gas dependent economy because she introduced the Green New Deal, which she says is a roadmap for weaning the nation off fossil fuels, meanwhile has raised $2 million in aid for Texans.

She said she is flying to Houston on Friday to distribute supplies with her colleague Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas.

Despite Abbott's lack of communication with Texas Democrats, he has been on the phone with President Joe Biden asking for a major disaster declaration authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide aid for home-repair costs not covered by insurance. Biden is expected to sign the declaration Friday.

Water is loaded into a vehicle at a City of Houston water distribution site Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, in Houston. The drive-thru stadium location was setup to provide bottled water to individuals who need water while the city remains on a boil water notice or because they lack water at home due to frozen or broken pipes. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
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