Texas faces heat and water crisis in wake of winter storm

By Melissa Mahtani and Adrienne Vogt, CNN

Updated 3:57 PM ET, Sat February 20, 2021
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3:42 p.m. ET, February 20, 2021

Good Samaritan drove around Austin helping those in need

Andrew Bost on February 20.
Andrew Bost on February 20. CNN via Skype

Austin resident Andrew Bost spent his week driving around helping those who got stranded or needed assistance during the winter storms that pummeled the state. 

“I got out in my four-wheel-drive truck when the snow hit, just to see how the truck would do. I found somebody who needed to be pulled out, so I did that,” he told CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield. 

Bost said he looked online for more volunteering opportunities and found others who were using their four-wheel-drive vehicles for good. 

“I pulled some people out of ditches, I delivered some meals, I delivered some boiled water, I gave a ride to a nurse to a hospital, I cut some trees out of roads — just whatever I could find that needed to be done,” Bost said.

“In Texas, we don't often need four-wheel-drive, but this was that rare opportunity when it was absolutely necessary. And so it was good to be able to help people when I had the tool to do it,” he added.

All those he helped expressed a lot of gratitude, he said. 

3:24 p.m. ET, February 20, 2021

Dallas resident says he was charged nearly $7,000 on electric bill

DeAndre Upshaw on February 20.
DeAndre Upshaw on February 20. CNN via Skype

Dallas resident DeAndre Upshaw says it was “very shocking” when he saw that he was charged nearly $7,000 on his electricity bill. 

“While I'm trying to get gas and groceries and make sure that my pipes don't explode, the last thing I'm thinking about is a $7,000 bill from my utility company,” Upshaw told CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield. 

Upshaw said he attempted to switch his electric provider from his current one — called Griddy — to another, but his new company kept pushing back his start date. 

After he noticed his bill hit about $1,000, he switched his credit card on file to one with a limit so he would not continue to be charged. Upshaw said he did not lose power for a majority of the time, yet he was charged even though they were conserving energy.

He said neighbors and friends who have Griddy told him the charges “knocked out their entire checking account, went into their savings account, they can't pay their rent.” 

Upshaw said he will figure out the bill and is thankful that he still has his health after the storm and amid the Covid-19 pandemic. 

More on the energy market in Texas: Customers in Texas have options in how they are billed for their electricity, according to the Public Utility Commission of Texas' (PUCT) website. If you go with a fixed plan, your price for electricity is fixed and doesn't fluctuate with the market. However, there are also market rate plans that are tied directly to the price utility companies pay for electricity.

Griddy operates exclusively on the latter. Their website touts that customers "pay exactly the price we buy electricity at" and that their model "beats the [Texas] average 96% of the time." 

When the winter storm wreaked havoc on Texas' power grid, power prices shot up and so did bills for customers on market rate plans. Griddy said it urged "members switch to another provider with a fixed rate," according to a statement from the company.

"While we value our members, we want what is best for their wallet and family even more, even if that means helping them switch away to our competitors," the company added.

Now, PUCT is taking action. According to a statement released today, the utility regulator says they have "launched an investigation into the factors that combined with the devastating winter weather to disrupt the flow of power to millions of Texas homes."

Read more here.

3:12 p.m. ET, February 20, 2021

City of Austin receives more than 10,000 cases of water

From CNN's Omar Jiminez

The City of Austin told CNN they’ve received more than 10,000 cases of water to distribute throughout Austin, delivering more than 5,000 of them to critical facilities like shelters.

On the electricity front, Austin’s electric utility said outages in the city are under 10,000 for the first time since outages peaked at around 220,000 earlier this week.

Remember: Austin Water lost 325 million gallons of water total as thousands of private customers pipes burst amid sustained freezing temperatures this week. Officials in Austin are optimistic they could have water restored by the end of the weekend.

2:55 p.m. ET, February 20, 2021

Austin family fills up water jugs at brewery to have enough to drink

Seven-year-old Stella Hoang.
Seven-year-old Stella Hoang. Source: CNN

A family in Austin said they were at a brewery to fill up jugs of water so they have enough to drink. 

“We’re scrambling,” according to Anthony Hoang, who said his family has been without hot water since Monday.

Seven-year-old Stella told CNN’s Omar Jimenez that the week has “hard” because the power has been out. Her brother Sam said it’s been “weird.” 

Meredith Steiner said the family was in “panic mode last night that we didn't have enough drinking water.” 

“We would love showers. But we'll get that when we get our water turned back on. But mainly it was just to have enough drinking water. Our dishes can wait, laundry can wait.”

She said “someone needs to be held accountable” for the crisis. 

2:41 p.m. ET, February 20, 2021

Texas state regulator says it's trying to prevent a spike in natural gas prices

From CNN's Konstantin Toropin

A warning sign for an underground natural gas pipeline stands near Sunray, Texas, U.S., on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020.
A warning sign for an underground natural gas pipeline stands near Sunray, Texas, U.S., on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. Angus Mordant/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Texas' Railroad Commission said it's working to keep natural gas flowing into the state in an effort to "avoid situations where customers may get unusually high bills in the coming weeks."

In a statement released Friday, it said it's working with "energy producers, pipeline operators, and electric regulators to provide the support they need for natural gas deliveries."

“Texans have gone through enough hardship during this winter storm without having to worry about unexpected additional energy costs,” Commissioner Wayne Christian said in the statement.

“Our agency will do everything in our power to ensure utilities have plenty of time to get caught up on these unexpected expenses, so consumers are not unduly burdened.”

The release comes as some electricity customers in Texas have been reporting outrageous energy bills stemming from storm price surges.

Although established as a railroad regulator, the commission has been regulating the oil and gas industry in the state from "almost 100 years," according to the group's website.

 

2:08 p.m. ET, February 20, 2021

Austin and Houston water systems are coming back online, but boil advisories remain

From CNN's Omar Jimenez and Julianna Battaglia

The water systems in Austin and Houston, both hit hard by the Texas winter storms, are on their way to being fully restored, officials in both cities announced today.

In Houston, the water system is "at [the] normal operating pressure citywide," Carol Haddock, the director of Houston Public Works, announced at a news conference earlier.

Haddock also noted that they city was beating the water pressure goals it set for itself last night.

Yesterday, the city said that most residents should have water by the end of the day. Haddock did note today, however, that the city remains under a boil advisory.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner reiterated that the goal was to lift that advisory by Monday but added that it "could be a day or two on either end."

Meanwhile, Austin is more than halfway to restoring the minimum water pressure needed to push water through its system, according to the city’s water utility.

The system needs 100 million gallons minimum in storage to maintain a healthy system, and as of Saturday morning, officials said they were “at 50.43 million gallons and climbing.”

1:34 p.m. ET, February 20, 2021

Winter storms hampered food distribution efforts for those hard-hit by pandemic, food bank CEO says

Derrick Chubbs, president and CEO of the Central Texas Food Bank.
Derrick Chubbs, president and CEO of the Central Texas Food Bank. CNN via Skype

Texas’ winter storms compounded the Covid-19 pandemic’s effect on food insecurity, according to Derrick Chubbs, president and CEO of the Central Texas Food Bank.

“The need is higher right now than we've ever seen before,” Chubbs said.

He told CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield that he’s heading to a mass food and water distribution site today, and he’s been told the parking lot is already full. 

Chubbs also said the food bank is “literally just getting back on our feet” because pipes burst and it needed to be closed all week. 

With a boil-water notice still in effect for Austin, Chubbs said “we’re all reaching out all across the country to try and get water.” 

1:03 p.m. ET, February 20, 2021

Record snowfall begins to melt

From CNN's Haley Brink

The winter storms that hit Texas hard this week have now cleared, leaving clear skies in their wake. Due to these clear skies you can see the expanse of snow across the contiguous US, from satellite imagery.

About 65% of the lower 48 – all of the United States minus Alaska and Hawaii – is still covered in snow with a snow depth that averages six inches.

Earlier this week a record 73% of the lower 48 was covered in snow.

As the skies clear and temperatures warm, the snow will continue to quickly melt across much of the southern and central US.

12:41 p.m. ET, February 20, 2021

Texas officials investigate outrageous energy bills in storm price surge

From CNN's Konstantin Toropin

Some customers in Texas are facing outrageous hikes in their energy bill as a result of this week’s storm, causing one energy company to suggest that their customers find another provider with a fixed rate if prices were too extreme.

Customers in Texas have options in how they are billed for their electricity, according to the Public Utility Commission of Texas' (PUCT) website. If you go with a fixed plan, your price for electricity is fixed and doesn't fluctuate with the market. However, there are also market rate plans that are tied directly to the price utility companies pay for electricity.

Griddy, a power company in Texas, operates exclusively on the latter. Their website touts that customers "pay exactly the price we buy electricity at" and that their model "beats the [Texas] average 96% of the time." 

When the winter storm wreaked havoc on Texas' power grid, power prices shot up and so did bills for customers on market rate plans.

Griddy urged "members switch to another provider with a fixed rate," according to a statement from the company.

"While we value our members, we want what is best for their wallet and family even more, even if that means helping them switch away to our competitors," the company added.

Now, PUCT is taking action. According to a statement released today, the utility regulator says they have "launched an investigation into the factors that combined with the devastating winter weather to disrupt the flow of power to millions of Texas homes."

Texas Gov. Greg Abbot also announced that he has convened an emergency meeting to look into the matter. 

“It is unacceptable for Texans who suffered through days in the freezing cold without electricity or heat to now be hit with skyrocketing energy costs,” Abbott wrote in a statement. “To protect families, I am actively working with the Lieutenant Governor, the Speaker of the House and members of the Legislature to develop solutions to ensure that Texans are not on the hook for unreasonable spikes in their energy bills,” he added.

PUCT also took steps to make it easier for customers to go with a temporary "Provider of Last Resort" and lifted the typically higher rate associated with going with that option. However, according to PUCT's website, this program is designed for customers whose usual electric company is "unable to continue service" not customers voluntarily leaving their provider in an effort to save money, as Griddy suggested.

CNN has reached out to PUCT for clarification but did not immediately hear back.

For its part, Griddy is laying the blame for the situation squarely at PUCT.

"Here is what we do know: the market is supposed to set the prices, not political appointees," the company wrote in a Thursday statement about the high prices.

Griddy added that it was also seeking relief from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT as it is commonly known, and the PUCT for its customers who were exposed to the high prices.

“Griddy is continuing these efforts and is committed to crediting customers for any relief, dollar-for-dollar,” according to a statement.

The company also said it also wants to "continue offering innovative products and services in the retail energy market in Texas."