Millions of Texans awoke without heat again following a historic winter storm that has killed at least 21 people
By Go Nakamura
HOUSTON Feb 17 (Reuters) - Millions of Texans on Wednesday began their third day without heat in the wake of a punishing winter storm that has killed at least 21 people, as icy conditions threatened to plague the country's second largest state and the surrounding region for days.
Some 2.7 million Texas households were still without power, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), a cooperative responsible for 90% of the state's electricity which has come under increasing fire for the outages.
Laura Nowell, a 45-year-old mother of four in Waco, Texas, said her family has been without electricity since before dawn on Monday and has been trying to keep warm by bundling up and running and sitting in their car for short stints.
"We've never had this much cold. There is ice everywhere," Nowell said, adding that she was frustrated by the lack of communication about rolling blackouts to conserve the power grid. "Tell me what's going on. It's silence."
The National Weather Service said snowfall and ice accumulation would likely end around midday on Wednesday in North Texas, offering some reprieve, although it kept a winter storm warning in effect through 8 p.m and warned that historically low temperatures would continue for days.
Moreover, a low responsible for the snow and freezing rain crippling the region was moving east and heavy ice accumulation was expected in parts of Texas, the Lower Mississippi Valley, Virginia and North Carolina by Wednesday night, it said.
"In the areas that contend with these devastating ice accumulations, residents can expect dangerous travel conditions, numerous power outages, and extensive tree damage," the weather service said in its latest update.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the top government executive in Harris County, Texas, on Wednesday said the ongoing storms were straining not only the local electric grid but triggering a cascade of effects, including lost water pressure, carbon monoxide poisoning and halted COVID-19 vaccinations.
"A lot of it really is just beyond what our infrastructure can really stand and it's really testing a lot of people," Hidalgo told MSNBC, adding that she is warning residents the power issues are likely to last after the weather clears out.
The storm has killed at least 21 people across four states, and the weather service predicted that temperatures for a few days would remain 20 to 35 degrees below average across parts of the central and southern United States.
Texas' deregulated energy market gives little financial incentives for operators to prepare for the rare bout of intensely cold weather, critics have said for years. Natural gas wells and pipelines in Texas, the country's biggest energy-producing state, do not undergo the winterization of those farther north - resulting in many being knocked offline by the prolonged freezing weather.
ERCOT, which instituted blackouts to cope with a surge in demand it says was caused by the unusually cold weather, said it was working to restore power as quickly as possible. It warned that another cold front this evening could increase demand.
"We know millions of people are suffering," ERCOT President and Chief Executive Bill Magness said in a statement. "We have no other priority than getting them electricity."
The electricity shortfall caused prices to spike, raising questions about the operations of the state's grid. Texas Governor Greg Abbott demanded that state lawmakers investigate ERCOT and pass reforms.
Shivering Texans lashed out at ERCOT over social media.
"PRICE GOUGING!!!" Rebecca Michael Gonzales said on Facebook, where others posted GIFs of slithering snakes.
"It isn't high demand. It is you not keeping up with maintenance. You need to pay people for what you put them through," Carol Alford said on Facebook.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler said it could be another two or three days before power returns, and that there was a lack of information from state authorities on when electricity would return.
"The grid had failed us here. We need better answers from the state as to when the power generation is going to come back on," he told MSNBC in an interview. "It failed because we had a system that wasn't hardened and ready for sustained weather at 18 degrees below zero. But we need to start taking a look at extreme weather. It's not as unusual as it used to be."
President Joe Biden assured the governors of states hit hard by storms that the federal government stands ready to offer any emergency resources needed, the White House said in a statement.
(Reporting by Go Nakamura in Houston, Susan Heavey in Washington, Peter Szekely in New York, and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Leslie Adler)
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