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Texans without heat warned they might not see power for days

Phil Helsel and Elisha Fieldstadt and Mohammed Syed and Suzanne Gamboa and Yuliya Talmazan
·9 min read
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Millions in Texas were struggling to stay warm Wednesday, many going for days without power, as continued winter weather, bitter cold and the looming threat of more ice meant the blackouts might last until the end of the week.

By midday, more than 3 million people did not have electricity, according to tracking site poweroutage.us, as winter weather advisories, warnings or watches stretched from Texas to Virginia.

NBC News spoke with more than a half dozen Texans and many said they had one main concern: heat.

“We need heat most importantly," said Courtney Heineman, a single mom in South Dallas. My house thermostat is at 39 degrees. Twenty hours — no heat, no fireplace, no food."

Isaac Warren, 43, of Southwest Austin, said: “We’re now at approximately 36 hours straight without power. We need heat. It was approximately 40-43 degrees in our house this morning."

"My girlfriend and I would love to just have a couple of hours of electricity to heat the house a little. That is our biggest need," Warren said. "Really disappointed with our governmental leaders at all levels. This is a complete failure of leadership.”

Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees about 90 percent of Texas’ energy production, said on Tuesday evening that it was working on restoring power as soon as possible. ERCOT's CEO Bill Magness described the amount of time people in Texas have had to be without electricity during the extreme cold as "terrible" and "unacceptable" in a Tuesday press conference.

Related: “This has been an extraordinary event for Texas,” said Bill Magness, the CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called for an investigation of the electrical grid operator over the outages.

"The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours," he 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."

Tweets from ERCOT said it had directed utilities to restore 700,000 households, but confirmed that millions of households were still without power.

"We know millions of people are suffering," said ERCOT President and CEO Bill Magness. "We have no other priority than getting them electricity. No other priority."

Conservative critics, including Abbott, blamed the power outages on a failure of green energy. But wind and solar generate only about 21 percent of the state's electrical power. Natural gas, which powers half the state's electrical generation — by far the largest source — was in high demand for use by home furnaces, and some power plants couldn't get enough.

Abbott faced multiple questions over his comments on the matter, including blaming green energy and emphasizing that failure as why "fossil fuel is necessary" in a Fox News interview. The governor insisted that he has had numerous interviews emphasizing issues with all the state's power access.

"I was asked a question on one TV show about renewable, and I responded to that question," Abbott said.

He told reporters Wednesday that he hopes to add thousands of megawatts to the state's grid in the next 24 hours, which would hopefully equate to an estimated 600,000 homes. Abbott expected that the South Texas Project Electric Generating Station, a nuclear plant in Bay City, will be fully operational by Wednesday night.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said that the Texas power grid failed because “we have a system that wasn't hardened and ready for sustained weather at 18 degrees below zero."

"To interject that measure of politics when the focus should be on turning back on the power, we need plans to be operating, to be able to get power back," Adler said. "We're doing everything we can here locally to conserve as much power as we can."

"We have people that have been out of power for over 50 hours now, but to have conversations where the suggestion is that this is due to choices about renewable energy is just not — it's not helpful and it is also not true," Adler added.

Following an ice storm, Austin Energy on Wednesday morning reported that customers should prepare to be without power for Wednesday and "possibly longer."

George Hendricks, 65, of Austin, said he had already been without power for two days.

Related: In a now-deleted Facebook post, Tim Boyd said he was "sick and tired of people" looking for a handout.

“I’m not a happy camper,” Hendricks said. He was burrowing under blankets in his living room, afraid to burn a fire in a fireplace because he didn’t know if it was safe.

“I feel like ERCOT or the state government weren’t prepared for an event like this, and they probably should be.”

Roads hadn’t been cleared of the 5 inches to 6 inches of snow that fell, so Hendricks was unable to relocate to a friend's house or hotel.

“It’s like a bad movie,” he said.

Adam Gill, 47, was also trapped in his Austin home.

“I’ve had no power since 2 a.m. Monday, going on 30-plus hours freezing temps with no way to leave because the roads have 6-8 inches of unplowed snow and ice," Gill said. The one grocery store he could walk to had a line 200 people deep, he said.

Keerthimanu Gattu, 25, of Dallas, was worried about lasting another day.

“I’ve had power for only like four hours in the last 32 hours,” he said. “I wish the authorities, Oncor and ERCOT, had provided a schedule of when to expect these outages.," he said “Layering up, sealing the windows is helping a bit but it is soon going to be of no use.”

Colton Williams, 27, of Houston Heights, was concerned his house wouldn't make it.

"My house is 34 degrees and the power has not been turned back on at all," he said. "We are starting to see leaks forming as the pipes in our house freeze," Williams said. "My temperature is not going up with the sun, it's actually sitting at 34. ... Last night I woke up once every two hours to walk into my house and make sure that everything is still in tact. I need heat today or my house will likely have severe damage."

“I can see my breath on every floor of my house," Williams added.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the power outages were necessary to salvage the Texas power grid. She said the outages could last longer than the weather.

"It’s really testing a lot of people," she said. "It’s extremely tragic stories."

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said on NBC's "TODAY" that power outages would last “two or three more days, at the rate this is going."

Acevedo noted that El Paso, Texas, has not experienced blackouts because they are part of a national power grid that many other parts of Texas have opted out of.

"We've deregulated here in Texas. We've gone at it alone. And, quite honestly, when people worry more about profits, they're not going to winterize their plants. ... I think we've cut corners. We've tried to worry more about profit, and now Texans are suffering for it,” Acevedo said.

Many Texans on Twitter criticized ERCOT for continuing to provide power to city skylines like Houston and Austin while people struggled to keep warm in their homes. ERCOT did not respond to requests for comment regarding the decision.

In Galveston, below freezing temperatures over the last two days caused water line breaks in homes and businesses throughout the city, prompting authorities to urge residents to limit their water use.

Authorities also urged residents to begin working with plumbers and insurance to deal with the damages as soon as possible. Those who are not covered by insurance should save all their receipts for possible reimbursement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Abbott also said he intends to issue waivers for previously licensed plumbers who have not continued their education for relicensing in the past two years.

Wednesday's NBA game between Detroit Pistons and Dallas Mavericks in Dallas has been postponed, the league said. The city was under a winter storm warning again and can expect 2 to 5 inches of snow and ice to accumulate through the day.

The storm will then spread snow and ice through the lower Mississippi Valley, the Tennessee Valley and the Ohio Valley through Wednesday night.

The National Weather Service said bitterly cold air will remain entrenched across a large swath of the U.S., with another round of snow and ice expected to hit the Southern Plains, mid-south, mid-Atlantic and northeast this week.

Severe winter weather across large parts of the country prompted a warning from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention late Tuesday of "widespread delays" in Covid-19 vaccine shipments over the next few days, especially out of the FedEx facility in Memphis and UPS facility in Louisville, which serve as vaccine shipping hubs for multiple states.

Since Thursday, winter weather has played a role in at least 30 deaths across the country, officials said. Many of those deaths have been in Texas.

Six people were killed in a pileup on an icy Fort Worth highway Thursday, and a woman and child died of suspected carbon monoxide poisoning in Houston on Tuesday. Officials said it appeared a car was running in an attached garage for heat because the power was out.

Four died of carbon monoxide poisoning in Clackamas County, Oregon, over the holiday weekend, according to the sheriff's office, as the state also experienced power outages.

Officials pleaded with the public to be careful using gas-powered generators, remind them to never use them inside and to avoid using ranges or ovens to keep warm or idling cars inside garages for heat even if the door is open.

"It doesn't take much, and a little bit can begin to be lethal," Houston fire Chief Samuel Pena said.