AUSTIN – The slow winter disaster that struck Texas, which began with snow, ice and widespread blackouts, is now entering a new phase: a dire lack of food and fresh water.
Supermarket chains that remained open in past disasters have closed in the face of power outages and impassable roads. Cities like Houston and Austin are on citywide boil water orders, even though many homes do not have electricity. And open stores are often lined with empty shelves, as delivery trucks struggle to reach them on still icy roads.
Joe Giovannoli, 29, arrived at a supermarket in Austin’s Central Market at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, an hour and a half before it opened. Minutes later, more than 200 people had lined up behind him in the biting 26-degree weather.
Giovannoli’s wife is three months pregnant and the power in their one-bedroom apartment in Austin went out on Tuesday night. After a water pipe broke, firefighters also shut off the water to the building, he said. Giovannoli said he realized he always looked better than many others across Texas, but worried about how long it would take for things to get back to normal.
“This will be the next step after things are defrosted,” he said, watching the long line forming behind him. “It was mentally degrading.”
One of those in line behind him was Johnny LaTouf, 62, owner of Skylark Lounge, a well-known blues club in East Austin. LaTouf’s house never lost power, but his ex-wife, son, two daughters and their families all lost power and moved in with him: 10 people, five dogs and a turtle in total.
LaTouf said he wanted local and state leaders to warn people better of the impending disaster. For now, he was hoping to collect milk and preserves for himself and his clan to spend the next few days.
“It is really important to be connected with your family and your neighbors,” he said. “That’s what gets you through this.”
Minutes before the store opened, a manager came out and warned those in line that stocks inside were low: no produce, no pastries, not a lot of canned goods.
“We haven’t had a delivery for four days,” he said.
In Harris County, the largest in Texas with nearly 5 million people, more than 33,000 homes were left without power on Thursday and thousands of people lack access to clean drinking water, the judge said. Harris County, Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top leader. When the power was cut to the Harris County Public Health Department, and then the generator broke, authorities had to save more than 8,000 COVID-19 vaccines, she said.
“It’s definitely a rush,” Hidalgo said. “And this is something that is going to take us a few days to recover.”
Texas officials have ordered 7 million people across the state to boil tap water before drinking, after days of record high temperatures shut down water treatment plants and froze pipes . At least two hospitals in the Austin area have lost water pressure and heat, and one has been forced to evacuate some patients. More than three dozen deaths across the United States in the past few days have been blamed on the extreme weather.
As of early Thursday, more than 450,000 homes and businesses across Texas went without power, up from a high of over 4 million earlier in the week. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has announced plans to deploy more than 700,000 liters of bottled water, more than 60,000 blankets and industrial-size generators to help power hospitals and other critical structures.
But the immediate lack of supplies made the difficult situation more difficult.
“This storm is stressing our entire community in ways we’ve never experienced,” Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk said at a press conference Thursday.
People all over Texas stuck on icy roads and running out of electricity and water ventured into stores only to find long queues around the building or shelves devoid of basic items, like the milk, bread and bottled water.
HEB supermarkets, known to remain open reliably during most disasters, including Hurricane Harvey in 2017, have been forced to close or reduce the opening hours of many of its stores this week due to outages of current, according to its website. As of Thursday, 10 stores in the supermarket chain, which includes Central Market stores, in central Texas remained closed.
Providing food to those in need has been a struggle statewide. San Antonio Food Bank workers and volunteers are used to delivering groceries and prepared meals to evacuees from other disasters, including 2005 Hurricane Katrina in southern Louisiana and evacuees from Hurricane Harvey in Texas.
But they have never been tasked with delivering food themselves during a disaster, said Eric Cooper, the organization’s president and CEO. Since the winter storm arrived on Sunday, volunteers have not been able to enter and delivery trucks have been paralyzed, he said.
“It was in some ways just crippling,” he said. “It’s hard to get our trucks going, it’s hard to get the employees in. We’re probably running at 30% of what we normally do.”
The food bank has teamed up with San Antonio police and firefighters to bring snacks and meals to residents short of supplies, Cooper said. As soon as the roads are cleared, he plans to strengthen his grocery delivery service.
“The next few days are going to be pretty critical for our city and our state,” he said.
Even if the ice thaws and the power is restored, water will not immediately return to homes in the Austin area, said Greg Meszaros, director of Austin Water, in a phone call with reporters . The tanks, which can hold up to 100 million gallons, must be filled and water samples tested for harmful bacteria before restoring service, he said.
“We have to work on this in a methodical and detailed way,” Meszaros said.
Meanwhile, Texas county officials are strategizing on how best to feed and deliver water to those devastated by the storm.
Harris County officials have included a feature on their official website where residents can click and see which large grocery stores are open. Hidalgo, the county executive, said she was very concerned about the lack of clean water in her community.
County officials have walked through warehouses for water supply and emergency response officials will work to bring water to hospitals and homes long after temperatures have warmed up and lights come on in houses, she said.
“It’s not just a weather emergency,” Hidalgo said. “This is a multi-faceted disaster.”
To help with food donations, visit: www.houstonfoodbank.org, www.safoodbank.org or www.feedingtexas.org.
Contributor: Associated Press
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.