Thu, October 28, 2021

in-focus

Biden declares major disaster in Texas as focus shifts to who is responsible for the winter weather crisis


HOUSTON - President Joe Biden signed a major disaster declaration that will allow much of Texas to tap vast reserves of federal aid, the White House said Saturday, offering a new lifeline to a state struggling to recover from a brutal winter storm that left more than 50 dead and millions without power across the South.

As Texas thawed from days of frigid darkness, an epic blame game emerged over who is responsible for the billions of dollars in damages from what some expected would become the most costly weather disaster in state history.

Texas's deregulated electrical grid had triggered mass outages that left residents in the nation's second-largest state trapped without heat for days in freezing homes. Several died following desperate attempts to stay warm, including a 75-year-old woman and her three young grandchildren in a suburban Houston house fire sparked by a fireplace.

Many other households faced jaw-dropping electrical bills from some of the state's increasingly popular variable-rate plans, which charged thousands of dollars for a few days of power as wholesale energy prices soared.

The plans offer a potentially lower-cost alternative to traditional fixed-rate energy payments, but the outages quickly raised havoc. One company, Griddy, said it was forced to raise its prices to 300 times higher than the normal wholesale rate, meaning a typical $2-a-day household would face more than $600 in daily charges.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said Saturday he was convening an emergency meeting with state lawmakers to discuss the spikes, saying in a statement that "it is unacceptable for Texans who suffered through days in the freezing cold without electricity or heat to now be hit with skyrocketing energy costs."

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the state's power grid, faces a state investigation and two lawsuits arguing that its failure to prepare for extreme cold left residents freezing and in the dark.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Friday he was launching an investigation into how ERCOT and other power companies had "grossly mishandled" the winter storm. An ERCOT official defended its decision to trigger rolling outages, saying in a statement Saturday that it had been the "right choice to avoid a statewide blackout."

The catastrophic winter storm was expected to become the "largest insurance claim event in [Texas] history," said the Insurance Council of Texas, a trade group, which estimated the damage would far outpace the $19 billion in claims from Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Biden's major disaster declaration in Texas, which followed similar state-of-emergency notices in Louisiana and Oklahoma, will allow the general public and business owners to apply for temporary-housing grants, home-repair loans and other emergency aid. Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, a Democrat, said Saturday that the declaration would "help our city recover."

Biden's Texas declaration offers individual assistance to 77 of 254 counties, including the areas around Houston, Dallas and Austin, but does not cover the entire state. Biden said Friday at the White House that he hopes to visit the state this week.

Abbott said Saturday that the "partial approval is an important first step," and the White House said more counties could be covered as government officials continue assessing the damage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has in recent days provided generators, food, water and other supplies statewide.

The gatekeepers of the Texas power grid - famously unregulated and disconnected from the broader United States - are expected to face intense scrutiny over whether they neglected infrastructural upgrades and weather safeguards that could have helped during the disaster.

Congress is likely to open an investigation next week into what went wrong, and the Texas legislature is expected hold its own hearings. At least two Texas residents have filed lawsuits faulting ERCOT for not heeding safety warnings or boosting energy supplies.

Although temperatures have risen since the Arctic storm dropped air below freezing, many across the South are just beginning to recover from the devastation of burst pipes, power failures and flooded homes.

More than 14 million people across the South are still without a consistent supply of clean drinking water, and roughly 80,000 utility customers across Texas woke up Saturday morning without heat or power.

In Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city, residents on Saturday were still being told to boil all water. In Austin, the state capital, many homes still lacked running water, and officials couldn't say when it might return.

"This has just been one thing after another," Austin Mayor Steve Adler, a Democrat, told CNN on Friday. "This is a community of people that are scared and upset and angry. We're eventually going to need some better answers to why we're here."

More than 50 recent deaths have been linked to the bitterly cold weather and its aftermath, including from hypothermia, house fires and carbon-monoxide poisoning from people using cars or ovens to stay warm. In the Houston suburb of Sugar Land, Loan Le, 75, and her three grandchildren - ages 5, 8 and 11 - died in a house fire early Tuesday after using a fireplace to stay warm overnight while without power, city spokesman Douglas Adolph said.

Even as temperatures warmed, the threat of ruptured pipes and dry water supplies threatened further strain. In Killeen, a fire at a fully occupied Hilton Garden Inn raged out of control after the hotel's sprinkler system failed, officials said. No deaths were reported, and the cause of the blaze is still unknown.

For many, the storm's challenges are just beginning. Tabitha Charlton, 44, was playing Uno and trying to stay warm with her 7-year-old twins Tuesday when a pipe burst and covered her girls' bedroom with soggy gray insulation.

On Saturday, as the family laid pillows and stuffed animals out to dry on their lawn in Sienna, 30 miles south of Houston, Charlton remembered back to the three years she had spent battling insurance companies and state agencies for repair costs related to home damages from Hurricane Harvey.

"I settled my Harvey insurance claim last Wednesday, six days before this damage occurred. I haven't even received the check yet," Charlton said. "After dealing with that trauma for three-plus years, I felt immediately gutted when this happened. I fell to my knees and sobbed."

Many in the Lone Star State, faced with an uncertain recovery, have pushed to take matters into their own hands. Don Nichols, 70, visited four hardware stores Saturday trying to find parts to fix the busted pipes at his home in Crosby, 25 miles northeast of Houston, where he also owns a barn and some rental properties. He, his tenants and his 100 cows had been without water for most of the week.

On Saturday afternoon, Nichols stood in line with about 30 others at a Home Depot in the city of Humble, waiting to pick through the remaining plumbing supplies. He said he still remembers the last time it was this cold for this long: Christmastime 1989.

"I had my blankets on and my feather bed and my comforter and all of that, and I was still freezing to death," he said. "I'm a pretty tough ol' Boy Scout and I don't worry about that. But this time, man, I did."

Published : February 21, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Drew Harwell, Brittney Martin, Marisa Iati, Kim Bellware