The lights are back on in much of Texas, but for millions the water isn't working. It is the latest crisis in a grinding week of winter storms that have claimed at least 60 lives. Stephanie Sy reports, and speaks to Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO of Harris Health System in the Houston area, to learn more about how water outages are severely impacting hospitals.
The lights are back on in much of Texas tonight, but, for millions, the water isn't working. It is the latest crisis in a grinding week of winter storms that have now claimed at least 70 lives.
We turn again to Stephanie Sy to begin our coverage.
After long days in the dark, the power has largely been restored in communities across Texas that endured bitter cold.
I don't know when it's going to go off again, if it will go off. I don't know. So, immediately, when the lights came on, I hurried up and made a pot of shrimp gumbo and warmed up.
State grid operators said today their system is finally back to normal operations, nearly a week after some four million customers lost power.
That number had fallen more than 90 percent by this evening. But there was no end in sight for a debilitating water crisis. Pipes that burst in the frigid temperatures have led to a shortage. Fourteen million people have been affected, many of whom are now having to boil their water before they consume it.
The temperature in the house was 33 degrees. And now the power's back on so it's warm, but we don't have any water. So, I'm here to get water. I have been to several different stores, and no one has water.
Houston's Delmar Stadium hosted a bottled water drive-through distribution today.
I'm going to sit here until — I mean, I have no choice. All the stores in my area are out of water.
Twenty-four-year old Trent Helt echoed that experience, speaking to us from Arlington, outside Dallas. A main pipe burst has cut off water to his residence since Monday.
It's been interesting, to say the least.
We haven't been able to shower or bathe. And we have had to buy multiple, multiple packs of water to wash dishes or to bathe with. To flush the toilets, we were scooping the snow up and we were boiling it to melt it down, and that's how we would flush the toilets out our house, yes, ma'am.
You're probably really tired of the sponge baths.
Most definitely. I cannot wait to take an actual shower.
Meanwhile, President Biden promised a major disaster declaration for Texas to expedite much-needed resources, and he plans to visit the storm-ravaged state soon.
President Joe Biden:
If in fact it is concluded that I can do it without creating a burden for the folks on the ground while they are dealing with this crisis, I plan on going. But I — we will know that, we will make that decision probably the beginning of next week.
As calls for accountability grow louder, Bill Magness, the president of ERCOT, which manages the state's power grid, said today his agency is open to new ideas.
We're subject to policy-makers and leaders, and how they want us to operate. And if they're seeing that there's something that's really got to change, from looking at the totality of what we did, we will certainly try to change it or take any other action we're told to do to manage the issues that they're seeing.
Hey-hey, ho-ho, Ted Cruz has got to go!
Texas Senator Ted Cruz also faced calls for accountability. Protesters gathered outside his Houston home, after it was revealed he'd flown to Cancun as the state was reeling from the storm. He flew back Thursday.
Sen. Ted Cruz:
It was obviously a mistake. And, in hindsight, I wouldn't have done it. I was trying to be a dad.
Elsewhere across the South, water issues are also plaguing other states that were hit by wintry weather.
In Mississippi, nearly all of the 161,000 people in the city of Jackson were without water today. And, in Tennessee, the Memphis International Airport was forced to cancel all its flights because of low water pressure.
We head back to Texas now, where the water outages are severely impacting operations at hospitals already stressed by the pandemic. Joining me now is Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO of Harris Health System in the Houston area. Many of its patients are uninsured and underserved.
Dr. Porsa, thanks for your time on the "NewsHour."
So, I understand that one of your hospitals this week was so desperate for water, the fire department had to be called, where they then distributed water directly from a hydrant. What happened? And how are things now?
Dr. Esmaeil Porsa:
Well, thank you, first of all, for having me.
And I want to start, as always, with thanking all the health care providers and nurses and everybody else that's taking care of our patients at our hospitals. You're correct.
A couple of nights ago, around 1:00 in the morning, I was notified that the water pressure inside of the water towers that supplies water to the hospital, in addition to our HVAC system that controls the humidity and the temperature of our hospital, was rapidly running out of water.
It was a desperate situation. I was told that, within a few hours, if they could not replenish the water to our water tower, that we would actually have to evacuate the patients out of the hospital.
So, I able to call the city. The city was great, in responding very quickly to send a fire truck to the hospital. They were able — as you mentioned, able to connect the fire hydrant using a hose to the water tower and slowly bring the water up.
The water hydrant, unfortunately, was facing the same issue as the rest of the systems here in Houston, Texas. The water pressure was extremely low. But it was enough to buy us time, so that during the day, we were able to actually purchase several thousands of gallons of water that was delivered to us through trucks to maintain our operations.
And as the temperatures rose and as the water pressures improved, we were able to actually maintain. We are holding steady right now. The issue is no longer the water. The issue is the people coming to our emergency rooms, ours, in addition to other hospitals in this area, because urgent care clinics are shut down.
The main issue right now is our dialysis patients. We're having a historic number of dialysis patients coming to our emergency room seeking treatment, because private dialysis centers have been closed for the entire week.
So, even before this week, hospitals were already dealing with a surge of COVID patients in many cases.
Are you at capacity at this point? Are you having to turn away any of these dialysis patients coming in or anyone else?
Well, we are at capacity. We have been at capacity.
As you mentioned at the beginning of the conversation, we are the safety net hospital for Harris County, the largest county, the most populous county in Texas. So, we have been at capacity almost from the beginning of the pandemic. We have continued to be at capacity.
The situation hasn't gotten any better. What has happened actually since the start of last week — or this week — is that the patients who are ready to be discharged can't be discharged home because they also lack power and water.
So, we have our inpatient units getting backed up even more than what they have been. They have been more than 100 percent capacity for a few days now. But, to your question about turning people away, why we do not turn anybody away. We have not had to turn anybody away. We have more than 20 or 30 now patients waiting for dialysis treatment in our emergency rooms.
Unfortunately, we are only able to provide so many services. As you may know, dialysis is not a quick thing. It takes at least four hours for each treatment. And we only have so many machines.
And to make the matter even more dire is the staffing. Our staff are not immune to everything else that is going on in the community. So, they have the same issue with loss of water, loss of electricity, busted pipes, damaged ceilings.
So, it's all adding up to become the perfect storm in an already really bad situation.
Well, Dr. Porsa, we certainly are glad that you have at least the water you need for right now and that the temperatures are warming up.
We wish you the best, to you and your staff.
Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO of the Harris Health System, joining us from near Houston, thank you.
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Stephanie Sy is a PBS NewsHour correspondent and serves as anchor of PBS NewsHour West. Throughout her career, she served in anchor and correspondent capacities for ABC News, Al Jazeera America, CBSN, CNN International, and PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior to joining NewsHour, she was with Yahoo News where she anchored coverage of the 2018 Midterm Elections and reported from Donald Trump’s victory party on Election Day 2016.
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