By Paul J. Weber and Jill Bleed
Power was restored to more homes and businesses in Texas on Thursday after a deadly blast of winter this week overwhelmed the electrical grid and left millions shivering in the cold. But the crisis was far from over, with many people still in need of safe drinking water.
Fewer than a half-million homes remained without electricity, although utility officials said limited rolling blackouts could still occur.
The storms also left more than 320,000 homes and businesses without power in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. About 70,000 power outages persisted after an ice storm in eastern Kentucky, while nearly 67,000 were without electricity in West Virginia.
Snow and ice moved into the Appalachians, northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, and later the Northeast. Back-to-back storms left 15 inches (38 centimeters) of snow in Little Rock, Arkansas, tying a 1918 record, the National Weather Service said.
The extreme weather was blamed for the deaths of over three dozen people, some while trying to keep warm. In the Houston area, one family died from carbon monoxide as their car idled in their garage. A woman and her three grandchildren were killed in a fire that authorities said might have been caused by a fireplace they were using.
In Texas on Thursday, just under 500,000 homes and businesses remained without power, down from about 3 million a day earlier. The state’s grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said the remaining outages are largely weather-related, rather than forced blackouts that began Monday to stabilize the power grid.
“We will keep working around the clock until every single customer has their power back on,” said ERCOT Senior Director of System Operations Dan Woodfin.
Woodfin warned that rotating outages could return if electricity demand rises as people get power and heating back, though they wouldn't last as long as outages earlier this week.
Adding to the state's misery, the weather jeopardized drinking water systems. Authorities ordered 7 million people — a quarter of the population of the nation’s second-largest state — to boil tap water before drinking it, following record low temperatures that damaged infrastructure and pipes.
Water pressure fell after lines froze, and many people left faucets dripping to prevent pipes from icing over, said Toby Baker, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Gov. Greg Abbott urged residents to shut off water to their homes, if possible, to prevent more busted pipes and preserve pressure in municipal systems.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he expects that residents in the nation’s fourth-largest city will have to boil tap water before drinking it until Sunday or Monday.
Some Austin hospitals lost water pressure and heat. But because the problem was statewide and affected other facilities, "no one hospital currently has the capacity to accept transport of a large number of patients,” said David Huffstutler, CEO of St. David’s South Austin Medical Center.
Two of Houston Methodist's community hospitals had no running water but still treated patients, with most non-emergency surgeries and procedures canceled for Thursday and possibly Friday, and burst pipes were repaired as they happened, said spokeswoman Gale Smith.
Emergency rooms were crowded "due to patients being unable to meet their medical needs at home without electricity,” Smith said.
Texas Children’s Hospital’s main campus at the Texas Medical Center and another location had low water pressure, but the system was adequately staffed and patients had enough water and “are safe and comfortable,” spokeswoman Jenn Jacome said.
FEMA sent generators to support water treatment plants, hospitals and nursing homes in Texas, along with thousands of blankets and ready-to-eat meals, officials said. The Texas Restaurant Association also said it was coordinating donations of food to hospitals.
Weather-related outages also hit Oregon, where some have been without power for nearly a week. A Portland supermarket threw perishable food into the trash, leading to a clash between scavengers and police.
The damage to the power system was the worst in 40 years, said Maria Pope, CEO of Portland General Electric. At the peak of the storm, more than 350,000 customers in the Portland area were in the dark, and more than 100,000 Oregon customers remained without power Thursday.
Utilities from Minnesota to Texas implemented rolling blackouts to ease strained power grids. Southwest Power Pool, a group of utilities covering 14 states from the Dakotas to the Texas Panhandle, said rolling blackouts were no longer needed, but it asked customers to conserve energy until at least 10 p.m. Saturday.
The weather also disrupted water systems in several Southern cities, including New Orleans and Shreveport, Louisiana, where fire trucks delivered water to hospitals and bottled water was brought in for patients and staff, Shreveport television station KSLA reported.
Power was cut to a New Orleans facility that pumps drinking water from the Mississippi River. A spokeswoman for the Sewerage and Water Board said on-site generators were used until electricity was restored.
Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt pleaded with residents to limit water usage, and Jackson, Mississippi, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said most customers were without water, with no timeline on when it would be restored. At least 19,000 residents were without power there.
As the storms marched east, 12 people had to be rescued Wednesday night from boats after a dock weighed down by snow and ice collapsed on Tennessee's Cumberland River, the Nashville Fire Department said. Elsewhere in the state, a 9-year-old boy was killed when the tube his father was pulling behind an ATV slammed into a mailbox.
A 69-year-old Arkansas man was found dead Wednesday after falling into a frozen pond while trying to rescue a calf. In Kentucky, a 77-year-old woman was found dead of likely hypothermia Wednesday night after two days without power and heat.
A man fell through the ice on the Detroit River on Wednesday night and likely drowned, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman said. The man walked onto the ice just off Belle Isle, Michigan, about 5 p.m. and began “jumping up and down,” Lt. Jeremiah Schiessel said. Crews were unable to reach the spot where the man was last seen because the ice was too thin, Schiessel said.
Before the wintry weather moved on, parts of Texas got more snow.
Del Rio, along the U.S.-Mexico border, got nearly 10 inches (25.4 cm) Thursday, surpassing the city’s one-day record for snowfall. City officials asked residents to conserve electricity.
Up to 3 inches (7.6 cm) were forecast for San Antonio, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg urged residents to stay off treacherous roads.
Bleed reported from Little Rock, Arkansas. Associated Press journalists Gillian Flaccus in Portland, Oregon; Juan Lozano in Houston; Leah Willingham in Jackson, Mississippi; Rebecca Reynolds in Louisville, Kentucky; Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama; Kevin McGill in New Orleans; Darlene Superville in Washington; and Tammy Webber in Fenton, Michigan, contributed.
Updated on February 18, 2021, at 4:16 p.m. ET with the latest details.