8 million Texans boiling water after the wintry blast

SAN ANTONIO — The number of Texans who were boiling their water to make it safe to drink plunged to 3 million Wednesday from 8 million the day before as platoons of plumbers and engineers worked around the clock to repair the countless homes and businesses damaged by a cruel winter storm.

Many Texans also faced food shortages as grocery stores tried to stay stocked, huge crowds descended on food pantries, and the pandemic continued to threaten a state where, according to the latest NBC News data, nearly 43,000 people have died of Covid-19 and 2.6 million people have been infected.

Some 13,000 people were without any running water Wednesday after the public water systems they rely on were rendered “nonoperational” by the unseasonably cold winter blast, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reported.

And in some places where the water was recently restored, what was coming out of the tap left a lot to be desired.

“The water itself, it’s really coming out all yellow,” San Antonio mom Evelyn Esquivel said Tuesday.

But at least Esquivel had water. Water service in rural areas is being restored at a much slower pace, officials said.

“It’s safe to say we’ve literally never seen anything like this,” Toby Baker, the executive director of the environmental quality commission, told NBC affiliate KXAN on Tuesday in the state capital, Austin. “So our regional offices are systematically trying to reach out and being proactive to try and reach those smaller, rural water systems to say, ‘Hey, what do you need?’”

Still, the commission reported that considerable progress had been made since Saturday, when 1,445 public water systems reported service disruptions due to the cold, affecting 14.4 million Texans across 190 counties.

Also, while power had been restored in much of Texas after the state’s power grid buckled in the face of historically low temperatures, many people have also been hit with massive electricity bills because scarce power means higher prices in the state’s market-based system.

Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican and free market champion, has already promised to shield consumers from “unreasonable bills.”

“Texans who have suffered through days of freezing cold without power should not be subjected to skyrocketing energy bills due to a spike in the energy market,” Abbott said Sunday.

State Rep. Rafael Anchía, a Democrat from Dallas, said Tuesday that “this situation isn’t over by a long shot.”

“We had millions of Texans already suffering from a pretty deep recession caused by the Covid-19 pandemic,” Anchía said. “We had people already in a fragile state, and when you compound that with the worst statewide winter storm and disaster … people who were barely holding on are completely wiped out.”

But after tormenting Texas for a week, Mother Nature was now lending a hand. It was 79 degrees and cloudy in Houston on Wednesday, a far cry from the sub-zero temperatures some parts of Texas experienced just a few days ago.

The forecast for Friday, when President Joe Biden was expected to visit Houston, Texas’ biggest city, to check on the recovery efforts, was a more typical winter high of 74 degrees with cloudy conditions, according to The Weather Channel.

Nevertheless, there was still a lot of work left to be done to get Texas back to normal.

“Nearly half of the residents in one of the largest states in the U.S. are experiencing a plumbing catastrophe due to burst pipes from freezing temperatures and significant power outages,” said George Greene IV of Water Mission, a South Carolina-based Christian engineering organization that normally works in developing countries on safe water and sanitation community development projects, and responds to disasters where emergency safe water access is needed.

“Not having water in your home means you can’t flush toilets, shower or wash clothes,” said Greene.

Water Mission is putting together a game plan for doing repairs that will take weeks, if not months, to finish and has asked a partner organization, Plumbers Without Borders, to call up 1,600 licensed volunteers to help with the enormous repair job, said group spokesman Gregg Dinino.

In San Antonio, traffic was heavy at the city’s main Food Bank, where members of the Texas National Guard and volunteers from a Mormon church were helping distribute supplies and a line of cars stretched about two miles out of the parking lot when an NBC News reporter came by Tuesday.

Louie Guzman, development director at the Food Bank, said on most days they see about 150 people. Since the storm, the numbers have jumped to around 400 a day.

“We are seeing bigger turnout on days we don’t anticipate,” Guzman said. “In the afternoon here, they normally anticipate 150 to 200, but we have seen double that because of the storm.”

One of those waiting in line was Esquivel, 38, who said that in addition to her husband and their three children she has her parents and two brothers staying at her house. And even though medical experts have warned against having too many people in the house during a pandemic, Esquivel said they have no choice.

“Honestly, I didn’t think of Covid, that was my last thing,” she said. “I was just trying to survive and trying to keep warm because it was cold. It was cold.”

Esquivel said her power was back on but the water coming out of the tap is a sickly yellow and she’s been boiling it. She said she came to the Food Bank because her husband has been struggling to find a construction job and because her local grocery store had been largely picked clean.

“There was no water whatsoever, no milk, just pastas and stuff,” she said.

Having had little experience with snowstorms, Esquivel said it did not occur to her to stock up on staples ahead of time.

“We survived,” she said. “We can say we are blessed and survived.”

Michael Ybarra did stock up before the storm, but after the power went out there was only enough room in the insulated chest he stashed outside in the snow for the meat he had purchased. So the milk and eggs spoiled.

“This situation is pretty bad,” said Ybarra, 40. “We lost a lot of food and stuff.”