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Recovery may take months even as more help reaches storm-hit Texas

President Biden declares a disaster in Texas on Saturday, allowing affected Texans to apply for emergency grants for housing and low-cost loans to cover losses from the winter storm, which has left millions in the state without heat, power and water. For more on community impact and response to the winter storm, Hari Sreenivasan spoke with Texas U.S. Representative Colin Allred from Dallas.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For more on community impact and response to the winter storm, I spoke with Texas U.S. Representative Colin Allred from Dallas.

    Representative, you have been probably working the phones for the past few days. What are your constituents telling you?

  • Colin Allred:

    Well, thank you for having me on to discuss what's happening here in Texas.

    We've had a week straight out of the dark ages here, with Texans burning anything they can to stay warm, for light, turning on gas stoves and gas oven tops and getting carbon monoxide poisoning. And now the power is back. But the biggest issue we're facing is food and water. These stores have been raided. The shelves are empty. There's no milk to find. And about half the state is under a boil water advisory. And many others have had their pipes burst. And so they don't have water pressure or any water in their homes.

    And so that's the biggest focus right now, is that even though the worst point of the crisis has passed, we still have a long tail to deal with here.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So you have water now. Are you having to boil it?

  • Colin Allred:

    In parts of Dallas, we're not under a boil water advisory right now. Austin, Houston, Fort Worth and other parts of Texas are and I think it's about 14 million Texans that are under a boil water notice.

    Like I said, a lot of folks here in Dallas, even if they're not under a boil water notice, had their pipes burst because their homes were without power for 48 hours plus in single-digit temperatures and their pipes have burst. And so they don't know where to go. And they've also they're also dealing with flooding in their homes.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And that's the pipes that we know about and have already thought. I mean, this could actually be continuing for the next several days that more pipes burst as they thaw.

  • Colin Allred:

    That's right. And in fact, we've had freezes almost every night this week. And so it's absolutely right that we're going to see more folks discovering more damage. I, myself, in our home here in Dallas, may be in that same scenario. We have some lines that have not been working and we're worried that they may burst. So this is something that is going to continue and it's going to cause flooding.

    And it's really an unprecedented scale because it's across the entire state. So if you can imagine almost the entire state of Texas having an issue with flooding, that's the kind of damage we're looking at. In fact, Texas Insurance Agency is saying that this is going to be one of the most expensive disasters we've ever had, even more than Hurricane Harvey.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Which was an enormous storm with a long cleanup. The president just declared a Federal Disaster Emergency Declaration today. So what does that do? How does that help?

  • Colin Allred:

    Well, it's going to activate some really important resources, and this is the part that I think we're going to have to be focused on for months now, and I know the focus on what happened here in Texas will probably shift. But for those of us here on the ground, that's going to be months of getting folks the cost of what they've endured covered, getting them through this, discovering, unfortunately, that there's going to be many more deaths probably than we know about now.

    And so whether it's individual relief, which this declaration activates or relief for our state and local government, that is going to be covering so many costs, which it also activates or also just knowing that the federal government is going to be working with us hand in hand to address some of the surprises that we know will probably, unfortunately, come up. This is a really important thing, and I want to thank President Biden for doing it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know, people have a tendency to imagine that it's folks that are stuck inside of homes. But there are other kinds of structures, shelters that are also without power and suffering. What are some of the ones that you've been working with?

  • Colin Allred:

    Well, we've had hospitals lose power. Some of them had boilers that went offline. Others, of course, just had freezing issues and lost water, had frozen toilets in some hospitals, the inability to wash hands in hospitals. And of course, this is all happening now during the pandemic in which these are critical things to be doing and in which we still are having a lot of folks who have been hospitalized for that and have concerns around that. And so this could not have come at a worse time for Texas.

    Of course, there's never a good time for something like this, but for it to happen during a pandemic for critical infrastructure, things like hospitals to be affected, but also other things like domestic violence shelters.

    We have one here in Dallas that had their pipes burst, had to evacuate. The folks who were there, you know, are already dealing with so much in their lives and they have to evacuate to undisclosed locations because in many times they're fearing for their own lives. So it's caused enormous trouble here.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What kinds of legislative action could be necessary to prevent this from happening again in Texas when you had something similar happened about 10 years ago and people figured, well, we've learned from that, we've made all the necessary precautions or we've taken them? But that wasn't the case.

  • Colin Allred:

    No, it wasn't. The Texas regulators did not take the advice that they were given 10 years ago. And we had a similar cold snap come through Texas. We had some blackouts, nothing like the scale that we're seeing now. And they were told that if you don't weatherize, this could happen again. And they chose not to. They issued some recommendations, but not requirements. And that's something that, as we all know in many cases, that's not going to be followed.

    And now we have dozens of deaths. We've had millions of Texans without power. As I said, we've had Texans making just just incredible choices to try and protect their families, sleeping in tents on their living room floors, holding their babies as close to their chests as possible to keep them warm through a freezing night. I mean, it's just unimaginable the pain that this is caused.

    And, you know, obviously, Texas has its own grid, as some folks may know, we're not part of the national grid and most of Texas, we have a unique situation where you have both the supply and the demand in terms of power that we can create it and we have about 30 million people drawing on it. But if you're going to do that, you have to have redundancies in place. You have to weatherize and we have wind power here that some of it did freeze.

    But that happens in Iowa as well, where they have freezing temperatures and the wind still works. We have natural gas lines. It froze, but that happens in Alaska as well, where they use natural gas. But those lines don't freeze. This is preventable.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Well, what do you hope for, what is the silver lining that you hope happens for the people of Texas coming out of this?

  • Colin Allred:

    Well, first of all, just like with COVID, we've seen Texans going above and beyond to help each other, taking in their neighbors, sometimes meeting them while they're taking them into their home because their house has power and the house across the street did not. That kind of generosity of spirit is, I think, part of the Texas spirit and I think hopefully will bleed over into other things.

    But also, we need to recognize that we have to update our infrastructure in this country, that we need to invest in our power grids, that we need to invest in the critical infrastructure systems that we don't really notice until a crisis like this hits, whether it's our water, because Texas has huge issues that are going to be coming down the pipeline for us on water, given some of the climate change that's going on in the country or whether it's our electric grid or whether it's our roads and bridges.

    We've been living off the Eisenhower-era infrastructure for far too long. I think this is something that President Biden wants to address. It's something that we certainly want to address in Congress. And I hope that we will do that because this is shown that we have to make these critical investments. It's not something we want to do, something we have to do.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    There are Texans who are going to be faced with very high utility bills because the price in the market right now was very high when demand was high and supply was low. And that's just how pricing works. But if some of these same utilities were the ones that didn't take the right steps, didn't weatherize and it led to the blackouts anyway, is there any relief for a consumer?

  • Colin Allred:

    Well, that's something that I actually have been speaking with my staff about and talking with some of my colleagues here in Texas about whether or not we can lead an effort, if not through legislation which may come too late, at least through public pressure, to try and address this and to make sure that these energy companies know that we don't want to see folks being bankrupted by trying to stay warm during a crisis like this. And particularly given the fact that so many of the energy generators were not prepared for this, saw their generation powers go offline because they did not weatherize, did not make the investments necessary to do that, that they should not then be profiting from what happened here.

    And so there's going to have to be probably a multipronged approach to this. Number one, seeing if there's legislation that can be passed to address going forward. But then looking back and trying to help folks in the moment, see if there's anything we can do and also maybe working with FEMA to see what aid can be provided individually and for folks who are facing large bills. Because I've already heard from a number of my constituents online that this is something that they already know is coming.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Representative Colin Allred, thanks so much.

  • Colin Allred:

    Thank you so much.

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