Plumbers have begun to descend on Texas volunteering to help the state as it struggles to recover from a debilitating winter storm that left huge swaths with serious and long-term plumbing damage.
Texas became the center of an electricity and plumbing crisis when a record-shattering winter storm crossed the Southern and Central U.S in February. The state’s primary electric grid was unable to keep up with the huge demand as Texans tried to heat their homes. To make matters worse, nonwinterized homes and utilities cracked under the freezing temperatures. Burst pipes and service disruptions due to the cold affected 14.4 million Texans at one point.
Two weeks later, some 200,000 Texans remain under boil-water notices and 207 counties are reporting public water system issues, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said in an email.
Paul Mitchell, 73, a plumber from Cedarville, Ohio, drove roughly 1,200 miles to help the recovery effort in Austin.
Mitchell had never been to the city before and is technically retired, but made the two-and-a-half day journey with a trailer containing $5,000 worth of supplies donated by his local Ohio community.
On Monday, he went to a trailer park in Austin, working alongside volunteer plumbers from Kansas, California, New York and Georgia to help restore water to the residents there.
“I had no idea I was going to be under trailers,” Mitchell said, adding that he wasn't sure what he would be doing but he was ready to help where needed. “They gave me the address and I went.”
Mitchell volunteered through Water Mission and Plumbers Without Borders, two groups hoping to make an impact with the Texas recovery efforts.
Both groups are heading into uncharted territory. Water Mission is a Christian organization that usually works internationally in developing countries to help install water systems and get people access to clean drinking water.
Plumbers without Borders is a tiny operation, run by a husband and wife in Washington state, Domenico and Carm DiGregorio, who work to connect volunteer licensed plumbers with organizations committed to increasing access to safe water and sanitation.
When they saw how overwhelmed the local plumbers were after the storm left a trail of busted pipes in its wake, they knew they needed to do what they could to get as many plumbers as possible to Texas to help.
The DiGregorios put out the rally cry to their email list and the offers to help starting coming in almost immediately. They get volunteer offers from plumbers as far away as Norway. The couple is coordinating with Water Mission and local Texas officials and trade unions to get volunteers to work, particularly in the neediest areas.
“There’s no equipment down there,” said Domenico DiGregorio. It's clear from reports coming out of Texas that this crisis won’t end in weeks, but rather will take months. “We’re trying to find plumbers with trucks and tools and materials who can head down," he said.
George Greene IV, president and CEO of Water Mission, said while his organization usually does work internationally, “anytime there’s a need in the U.S., we are looking to see if there’s a role for us.”
The need this time was clear. In conversations with Texas-based plumbing companies, he’s hearing plumbers in the state have work orders that they estimate will taken them six months to complete.
“There is a massive need for a specific skillset that has a limited bandwidth based on what’s currently available in Texas,” he said, calling it a “human resources” shortage.
“There was a plumbing repair job that took someone 15 minutes,” Greene said. “In those 15 minutes, they restored water flow to a home that hadn’t had water in two weeks.”
The city of Austin is working with volunteers to help coordinate and provide lodging and the groups are providing travel and repair expenses, while the plumbers are volunteering their time.
"In our culture plumbers aren’t typically seen as people who are humanitarians," Carm DiGregorio said. "Plumbers around the country do care for people in need, and they want to share their time with people who are less fortunate and under resourced."
For Mitchell, lending a helping hand was a no-brainer. He and his wife both had Covid-19 and recovered in January, felt safe traveling, and knew there was need.
“I am just grateful for the opportunity to serve other people,” he said early Tuesday morning on his way out of the door, headed to another trailer park, ready to work.