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Americans grapple with historic weather, with much of the U.S. still locked in deep freeze

Most of the nation is still locked in the deep freeze as a polar vortex that swept south is holding sway, claiming at least 30 lives and keeping the power off for more than 3 million people. Stephanie Sy reports, and speaks to Mayor Harry LaRosiliere of Plano, Texas and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Mayor David Holt about how the weather is impacting their cities.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Most of the nation is still locked in the deep freeze tonight. A polar vortex that swept South is holding sway, claiming at least 30 lives and keeping the power off for nearly 3.4 million people.

    Stephanie Sy begins our coverage.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    All across the country, Americans grappled with the historic arctic weather system for another long day.

  • Woman:

    It's so cold in the house, you can see my breath.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And a new round of winter weather threatened to engulf the Southern and Eastern parts of the country. The extreme conditions have left more than 100 million people under some type of winter storm warning or advisory.

    And states from Nevada to Mississippi are still struggling with power outages, after rolling blackouts were imposed. In hardest-hit Texas:

  • Sylvester Turner:

    Power will not be restored fully, I would say, probably for another couple of days.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Warming centers have been set up to help those without heat.

  • Willie Peterson:

    It's 20 degrees now, which has warmed up. Yesterday, when I left my apartment at the retirement community, it was one degree.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Eighty-year old Willie Peterson hasn't had consistent power at his home on the outskirts of Dallas since last weekend.

  • Willie Peterson:

    On a personal level, I have done well. My kids care about me, I can manage for myself.

    But there are lots of people in our area who do not have choices. So, the sadness for me is not personal. It's caring about these folks who were already marginalized, and they can't go check into a hotel. They don't have relationships where they can go and sleep on someone's sofa.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Peterson is staying at his son's house, which has also been a refuge for others, housing up to eight people. But right before we spoke with him, his son's house also lost power.

  • Gretta Griffin-Hurd:

    This is our neighborhood.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For Gretta Griffin-Hurd, a single mother in Lake Dallas, the worry is for her daughter, Maya (ph).

  • Gretta Griffin-Hurd:

    What am I going to feed her? You can't cook anything. No electricity. So, you're hoping you have enough in your cupboard that you can — because you don't know how long this is going to last.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The temperatures have overwhelmed power grids in Texas, and sparked misleading claims about what is to blame, including from the state's governor.

  • Gov. Greg Abbott:

    Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid. It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Abbott later clarified that natural gas and coal generators also went down.

    In fact, natural gas, coal and nuclear energy were responsible for nearly twice as many outages as renewable energy sources. Meanwhile, some COVID vaccination sites in Texas have closed. And, in places like Georgia, the weather has delayed vaccine shipments, this as heavy ice and snow is expected from the Gulf up to New England over the next few days.

    We now turn to two mayors managing the storm's impact.

    Mayor David Holt of Oklahoma City is joining us, as well as Mayor Harry LaRosiliere of Plano, Texas.

    Mr. Mayors, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour."

    Mr. LaRosiliere, I want to start with you.

    Describe what you're seeing in Plano, Texas, today, the biggest obstacles. Is it still extremely dangerous for folks there?

  • Mayor Harry Larosiliere:

    Yes. Yes, it is.

    Really, what we're finding is that we're not prepared for this type of a weather event, from a state level and really from a city level. I think to clean up the streets and for people to feel safe out and about is challenging.

    And then the extreme pressure on our energy grid has created quite a bit of outages. And so we have seen — we had up to 60,000 homes that were experiencing outages at the beginning, and it's now down to about 14,000, but that's still too many people that are in their homes and uncomfortable and can't — and not in substandard living conditions.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And, Mayor Holt, I know there in Oklahoma City you're also experiencing power outages. Yesterday, you had a temperature below minus-14 degrees, which set a record that hasn't been set since 1899.

    You also have your governor who, is asking for a federal declaration, a disaster declaration for all the counties there. What are the biggest challenges for you there in Oklahoma City?

  • Mayor David Holt:

    Well, I think four things come to mind. Water.

    We have got 30 line breaks across our city. We have got usage that is double what it would normally be this time of year. So, between the high usage and the water breaks, we have got low pressure across the city. So, we're trying to manage that.

    And the breaks obviously come from the preposterously low temperatures that you just referred to. I think the second thing is the energy grid. And Mayor Harry referred to that just now. You know, that's obviously been an issue, that the electric utility is separate from the city. And we're fully aware now that it's subject to a multistate governance, but that's something that it definitely affected us on Tuesday with rolling blackouts across the city.

    We're also dealing with people sleeping outside and those experiencing homelessness. And, as a community, we spent days, if not weeks, preparing for that. And so I'm pleased that there's enough capacity, and there's a lot of people trying to get out there to bring those people indoors.

    Unfortunately, we had our first fatality in Oklahoma City earlier today. And so that was what we had feared. We hope that that's the last one.

    And then the last thing are the roads. We're a 620-square-mile city. It is very difficult, obviously, for us to plow the roads. We focus on snow routes. But I would say, fortunately, to this point, our residents have largely stayed home. That's what we have asked them to do. That's partly why our water usage is so high.

    But they have stayed home. And we haven't yet really encountered what could be a very problematic situation as this drags on.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Mayor LaRosiliere, I want to follow up on this power grid issue in Texas.

    I spoke to Texans today, including an 80-year-old man, who have been for days without power in subzero temperatures or subfreezing temperatures. Who do you hold accountable for that?

  • Harry Larosiliere:

    I think any elected official, including myself, that's not focusing on a solution right now is not using our time effectively.

    We have plenty of time to redo the recount of what went wrong and what could have done better and ascribe the responsibility to the right party. But, for now, I'm just focused on helping our citizens.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Mayor Holt, I know Oklahoma is also a big energy-producing state.

    Texas Governor Greg Abbott and others have used this moment to say that renewable energy sources are not reliable. I wonder what you think about those that are using this moment to make that point, which isn't really borne out with the facts here. The fact is oil, gas, and nuclear all went offline during this storm.

  • David Holt:

    Yes, well, oil and gas have always been a big part of Oklahoma City's economy.And, obviously, we support those energy sources.

    But we have also been a community that has embraced wind. There's a lot of wind in Oklahoma. And our local utility provider, OG&E, use wind to a great extent. Wind has been challenged in this particular situation, because the turbines literally froze in place.

    But I don't think that necessarily is something that would cause you to abandon a diverse energy resource, because not every situation is going to be this one. This was a once-in-a-generation lowering of temperatures, combined with massive snow.

    We don't see that kind of weather mix here in Oklahoma very often.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Mayor LaRosiliere, you mentioned solutions.

    And climate change experts say we should expect more of these extreme weather events. I wonder if this experience has made you think cities do need to be built to be more resilient against these extreme weather incidents.

  • Harry Larosiliere:

    Absolutely.

    We have taken proactive measures here in Plano to be more resilient and be prepared for weather events such as this, but certainly not to this extent. This is way past what we actually have prepared for. But it does spook speak to more of a regional and state-level coordination that's required in order for these type of events that seem to be happening more frequently be addressed, and be addressed in a more coordinated manner.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Mayor Holt, what about you? Do cities need to be built to be more resilient against climate change?

  • David Holt:

    Well, if, for a place like Oklahoma City, that means we need to be more prepared for this not to be a once-in-a-generation event, and that it's going to have to be more common, then yes.

    We really probably need to get some pretty smart people around the table to tell us that this is going to happen more often, because, otherwise, we probably wouldn't over prepare. We're probably not going to build a city that is ready to have subzero temperatures for a week every year. That would be too expensive. Our taxpayers wouldn't want to do that.

    They'd rather just muddle through once every 20 years a situation like this. But if it's going to happen more often, obviously, cities like ours are going to have some tough conversations. And it seems like the last few years, I can admit that we are using the phrase 50-year storm or once-in-a-generation event more and more often.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Well, we certainly hope that the residents of both of your cities get through this current storm and that we don't have more of these extreme weather events.

    Mayor David Holt of Oklahoma city and Mayor Harry LaRosiliere of Plano, Texas, thank you both.

  • David Holt:

    Thank you.

  • Harry Larosiliere:

    Thank you.

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