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Texans battle relentless 'drastic freezes' as power outages, record cold persist

Bitter cold temperatures not seen in more than 100 years were recorded in parts of Texas.
Image:
Bethany Fischer rests her head on her husband Nic's shoulder at a church warming center in Houston on Feb. 16, 2021. The couple lost power at their home on Monday.David J. Phillip / AP

SAN ANTONIO — A relentless winter storm continued to pummel Texas on Tuesday as record lows left millions of people without power.

According to the National Weather Service, bitter cold temperatures not seen in more than 100 years were recorded in San Antonio and Corpus Christi.

In San Antonio, temperatures dipped to 12 degrees Fahrenheit on Tuesday, beating the previous record of 16 degrees set in 1895, the weather service said in a tweet. Corpus Christi shattered its record of 20 degrees, also set in 1895. On Tuesday, the temperature there was 19 degrees.

Dallas and Wichita Falls also set new records Tuesday, recording minus 2 and minus 8 degrees respectively.

The bitter cold contributed to an overburdened electrical system resulting in rolling power outages or total blackouts for more than 3 million people. On Monday, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees the state's power grid, ordered rotating power outages in an effort to prevent longer, uncontrolled blackouts, NBC Dallas-Forth Worth reported.

Without the ability to turn on heaters, Texas residents were forced to resort to other means.

“We just have so many blankets, like quite a bit, and we are going to the car and trying to heat up there and get a charge for phones and trying to brave [the electricity] switching back and forth. It’s not sustainable,” said Juany Torres, a University of Texas graduate student and a San Antonio resident.

Torres, her parents and her two siblings have resorted to huddling beneath heavy blankets to beat the frigid temperatures.

Not having experienced such drastic freezes, Torres said, she learned from Twitter that she had to leave the water dripping and said she wasn’t clear what that does. But they still lost water for a while and now have no hot water. Their electric stove can’t heat anything and the family does not have a barbecue pit.

She and her family members have been living together so they didn’t have to break any Covid-19 protocols. But, she said, she and other relatives who live separately are now talking about how they can combine resources. An aunt with a gas stove might have to enter their bubble in order to keep everyone safe.

All 254 counties in Texas were under winter warnings and more than 3.2 million people around the state were without power as of Tuesday afternoon, according to PowerOutage.US.

Eithan Colindres wears a winter coat inside after the apartment his family lives in the Greenspoint area that lost power following an overnight snowfall on Feb. 15, 2021 in Houston.Brett Coomer / Houston Chronicle via AP

“Like in the summer when everybody wants their air conditioning on, everybody wants their heat and we are putting strains on the system and the electricity system,” Joshua Rhodes, a research associate at the Webber Energy Group/Energy Institute, University of Texas at Austin, told Texas Public Radio.

“Until temperatures warm back up to normally where we see them in the winter time, we are in for a few more days of this, I think,” he said.

Rhodes said the idea behind rolling outages is to keep demand low but also to keep on power in homes long enough to give people an adequate temperature to cook, clean and do whatever they need to do.

“It’s hard to do when power is out for that long of a time,” he said.

Julian Gutierrez, 30, his two sisters and brother-in-law also live in south San Antonio. His mother and his 10-year-old son were also with him but it eventually became too cold and was going to get colder, so he sent the two to his grandmother’s because she has power. She lives also on the southside of the city, about five minutes north of him, he said.

Natalie Harrell holds her sleeping daughter, Natasha Tripeaux while sitting in a recliner at a Gallery Furniture store after the owner opened his business as a shelter for those without power on Feb. 16, 2021, in Houston.David J. Phillip / AP

The last he saw on his thermostat, the temperature in his home was 55, but the power hasn’t been on since Monday and he can’t read his thermometer any longer.

Gutierrez said he’s been layering with clothes and blankets. He was experiencing rolling power outages but the time between them became incrementally shorter until he had no power at all.

His family was able to use the microwave during the rolling blackouts, but when the power finally shut off they had to get creative. His brother-in-law found tea lights, put them atop a pound cake pan and used two large Gatorade Power cans to hover a pot of water over the candles.

“We boiled Ramen all night,” Gutierrez said.

They planned to use a barbecue pit they have in the backyard Tuesday.

Gutierrez said his grandmother’s home is too small and quickly becoming crowded with relatives. He was forced to stay put as long as he could to withstand the cold.

Amid cold temperatures, people wait in line outside a Walmart in San Antonio, Texas, on Feb. 16, ,2021.Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News

Outside the La Michoacana grocery store and a nearby Walmart, people stood in freezing temperatures waiting to buy supplies. The stores were only allowing in a few people at a time to prevent overcrowding. People were masked but there was not too much of socially distancing.

Joanna Martinez, 29, waited in line to go inside Walmart and buy Pampers. On the second of three days without power, she and her family went to stay at a hotel. The first hotel they tried didn’t have power but they eventually made it to one that did.

The historic weather is also causing problems for San Antonio’s Covid-19 vaccination rollout, according to San Antonio City Council member Adriana Garcia Rocha. She estimated her area had about 3,000 unused doses in her district and west side San Antonio that needed to be stored.

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“We had to actually make sure we had the vaccines transferred to some place that had no outages. The San Antonio Fire Department helped get them to a safe location,” she said. “We can’t risk anything.”

The city opened homeless shelters and hotels, she said. As for herself, she has remained in her home and is relying on emergency food supplies she had stashed.

“Since the Covid situation started, I’ve had backup canned meat and just things that can be easy to prepare, just in case,” she said. “Last night, we had cereal for dinner and lit up candles.”

Her barbecue pit is frozen shut, she added.

Council members were trying to hold an emergency meeting but she said about five colleagues also don’t have power so they can’t get online for a meeting. Hospitals, many nursing home facilities and other critical care locations are on a separate grid so their power has not been interrupted, she said.

“This doesn’t happen often in San Antonio, so there is a lot of learning going on, even by us,” she said.

Suzanne Gamboa reported from San Antonio and Alicia Victoria Lozano from Los Angeles.