Millions of gallons have leaked from burst water pipes in just one Texas city: 'That is an incredible amount of water'

Ryan W. Miller, USA TODAY
·5 min read

A historic cold snap in Texas left millions of residents without power in freezing weather, many of whom will soon face costly flood damage, even as rising temperatures offer a respite from the cold.

Reports of frozen and burst water pipes in Texas homes and businesses are widespread, and the upcoming thaw may further open the floodgates – quite literally, experts said.

"It is going to be crazy for a little while down there," said Paul Abrams, director of public relations at Roto-Rooter Plumbing and Water Cleanup. "I would bet it's pretty similar to the effects of a hurricane."

In parts of the country that typically get freezing temperatures, walls are built thicker and with more insulation, and pipes may be several feet underground or run up through a basement to protect them, Abrams said. In Texas, where pipes are typically weatherized to handle the summer heat, more are on exterior walls or in attics.

"This is one of those things that doesn't happen down there very often," he said. "But boy, when it does, the damage hits hard."

Though burst pipes won't flood the streets as a storm like Hurricane Harvey would, they will cause significant damage to residences and businesses. Once thawed water again flows through the pipes, they will leak, plumbing experts said.

In Austin, pipe leaks — both in the water system and in homes — have been blamed for continuing water outages in the city.

Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, Austin Water saw 325 million gallons leak out of the system. Residents typically use about 100 million gallons a day.

"That is an incredible amount of water and nothing I've ever seen before at that rate," Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said, "So that's what we're managing is to not return to that state of affairs, where 100 million gallons of water could leak out of our system in one night."

The Insurance Council of Texas, a nonprofit trade association, said the number of claims due to frozen and burst pipes will be "unlike any event the state has experienced."

Many in the state, including Gov. Greg Abbott, have drawn comparisons to Harvey, which caused $125 billion in damage, according to the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

Camille Garcia, a spokesperson for the Insurance Council of Texas, said that although the comparison is not "apples to apples" because Harvey did not hit the entire state, "this event will certainly rival Hurricane Harvey and other events that are, unfortunately, all too common in this state."

The issue is that homes without power may have been below freezing temperatures for days on end this week, said Travis Sewell, a licensed plumber in the Dallas-Forth Worth area at bluefrog Plumbing + Drain.

Leaving the faucet on? Here's how to thaw pipes during winter storms.

If the home is freezing and water isn't flowing through its pipes, the pipe and the water in it can freeze and expand, building up pressure and leading to cracks. Once the water is back on and flowing into pipes, the full extent of the leaks will become apparent, Sewell said.

"I think it's much bigger than people realize right now," said Mike Mushinski, president of bluefrog. "We're talking in the hundreds of thousands of homes and business" across the state.

'Massive failure': Why are millions of people in Texas still without power?

In Austin, Houston and other localities across the state, officials warned residents to boil their water because of issues with the water system.

Toby Baker, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said water pressure has fallen because pipes froze and residents left faucets dripping to keep water flowing. Abbott urged Texans to shut off their water, if possible, and other officials told residents to conserve water.

Dallas was not under a boil advisory Thursday, but officials had problems with frozen water pipes, said Catherine Cuellar, the city's director of communications, outreach and marketing. The Dallas Water Utilities has gotten 10 times the number of calls it usually gets in a given day for a leak or break, she said.

Abrams said crews with Roto-Rooter's branch in Houston had about 1,300 jobs on the board and awaiting help Thursday. Mushinski at bluefrog said the business has gotten several hundred calls a day this week.

Abrams said he expects other plumbing companies are similarly fielding an unprecedented number of calls, and it could take weeks to get to every home.

"It's going to take some time for all the plumbers in these cities to get a handle on this situation," Abrams said.

More on winter weather: Another winter storm slams Northeast, mid-Atlantic; 1M without power, including 400,000 in Texas

How to know if your frozen pipes are cracked

When a pipe freezes, water may be completely blocked from coming out a tap. Or faucets could sputter and spit as small amounts of water come out, Abrams said.

If a pipe is frozen, Abrams said, there's about a 50% chance it cracked and burst.

It's hard to know for certain if you can't pump water through the system, Sewell said.

"If it's frozen and it thaws and you kick your water on, that's when you're going to be able to find your leaks," he said.

Compounding the problem, Abrams said, is that pipes can break in more than one place.

"Quite often what happens is 'OK we fixed that one,' and then there's anther one downstream," he said.

Texas is frozen in surreal photos: Icicles hanging from a ceiling fan, a frosted cactus

Cracks can be obvious when water collects on a carpet or on drywall, but some are trickier to spot, Abrams said.

In Texas, photos on social media show icicles hanging on ceiling fans and in hallways in people's homes.

Sewell said he and others have responded to many frozen and broken pipes in the middle of people's homes, rather than just on exterior walls, highlighting how cold the houses have become without power.

"When you can't keep water moving and you can't keep warm air circulating in the house, it's the perfect storm of an issue," Mushinski said.

Contributing: Philip Jankowski, Austin American-Statesman; The Associated Press

Follow USA TODAY's Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Texas winter weather: Frozen pipes will burst, food damage expected