GALLERY: Katy area sees unprecedented winter weather from Uri

Infrastructure and home hardware fail in subzero temps

By R. Hans Miller | News Editor
Posted 2/24/21

Winter storm Uri bore down on the Katy area last week leaving overnight temperatures in the teens in the region. The unprecedented cold hit the rest of the state as well, causing the state’s …

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GALLERY: Katy area sees unprecedented winter weather from Uri

Infrastructure and home hardware fail in subzero temps

Posted

Winter storm Uri bore down on the Katy area last week leaving overnight temperatures in the teens in the region. The unprecedented cold hit the rest of the state as well, causing the state’s electrical grid to become overtaxed and energy officials to take measures to protect infrastructure that left many Texans in dark, unheated homes without water.

“It’s been a brutal week – one of the worst in memory for most – but we are getting through,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo in a Feb. 18 press conference. “Now, the lights may be on, but we’re not quite yet out of the dark. We’re not quite yet out of all the challenges.”

Weather impacts

Power, which had been out for more than one million Greater Houston residents, including those in Fort Bend, Harris and Waller counties, had been mostly-restored to the region Thursday morning after being mostly-absent for days. Some residents experienced intentional outages designed not to overtax the then-fragile power grid while still allowing them to heat their homes somewhat, while others did not receive any power for the entire week. About 20,000 Harris County households whose power was not restored by Thursday were on portions of the electrical grid which had sustained hardware damage that would take more time to complete, Hidalgo said.

“The bulk of this 20,000 homes without power are due to lingering mechanical issues caused by the storm,” Hidalgo said. “And CenterPoint tells me their crews have been out nonstop addressing those issues, and they’re not stopping anytime soon.”

Fort Bend County was in a similar situation Thursday morning, County Judge KP George said. Most homes had power restored and those with lingering power issues were portions of more seriously damaged portions of the grid.

By Tuesday morning, only 78 homes or businesses were reported to be without power in the three counties that make up the Katy area, according to poweroutage.us, a website that tracks power grid status across the nation.

The problem many still face is an outage of water due to pipes freezing. 

Local response

Local authorities scrambled throughout the week on a variety of levels to try to keep residents safe from the cold temperatures. Local buildings were also hit with damage from the cold as pipes burst and many local municipalities shut down except for emergency response teams.

Both Katy and Royal ISDs closed from Feb. 15 until Feb. 23 due to the freezing temperatures, power outages and uncertainties related to water services. Classes resumed Tuesday, Feb. 23 for RISD and most campuses in KISD.

“The longevity of last week’s wintery weather and freezing conditions took a toll on so many of our families, homes and even our schools,” said KISD Board of Trustees President Ashley Vann in a Feb. 23 video posted to YouTube.

The video showed crews repairing damage to one of Katy ISD’s campuses which had suffered water damage due to broken pipes.

Water availability was as much a problem as power availability throughout the week as city’s and municipal utility districts worked to maintain systems damaged by the cold. Throughout the Katy area, boil water notices were issued because of the impact to water infrastructure.

Water outages impacted almost all of the MUDs in the Katy area, prompting cities and counties to work to distribute water and food to those in need. Katy Christian Ministries and various other nonprofit organizations partnered with one another to ensure water was distributed. Louisiana’s Cajun Navy also delivered drinking water to the area. Grocery stores and even some fuel stations placed purchasing limits on water, milk and other essentials to try to spread available supplies as much as possible due to water shortages.

In the city of Katy, residents were allowed to set up bulk items for pick up including three bulky items such as furniture, mattresses or appliances, 15 bags of general debris such as sheetrock and insulation and general materials bundles not exceeding four feet in length and 40 pounds in weight.

In Brookshire, much of the relief effort was organized through The Hangar Unity Center with assistance from Brookshire Alderperson Kim Branch, who credited the distribution of assistance to many in the community.

Brookshire residents took to Facebook to express frustration with a lack of communication from the city itself as well as the  Brookshire Municipal Water District which did not have anything posted to its website regarding the weather and power losses until late in the week.

“Someone from BMWD needs to update the citizen of Brookshire on what's going on with the water. How is the world is it okay for everyone to just be left in the dark,” said Brookshire area resident Mistie Flores in a Feb. 18 Facebook post.

Emergency information was mostly posted to social media by the Brookshire Police Department, rather than through the official city website, BrookshireTexas.org.

Most water districts were no longer under a boil water notice as of Tuesday morning, but residents are encouraged to check with their MUD – there are nearly 80 in the Katy area – to determine the status of their water.

Some facilities in Fort Bend, Harris and Waller counties were damaged or shut down due to power outages and, in some cases, flooding due to burst pipes, but repairs were underway and many had reopened as of Tuesday afternoon. Even the Waller County Library was affected by burst pipes, though County Judge Trey Duhon said most of what was needed was to replace damaged flooring. He recommended residents use caution as their pipes unfreeze which may lead to the discovery of more pipe breakages as things continue to thaw and water is restored.

“Be careful if you leave your home unattended with the water on because if the leaks occur while you’re not there you could have more damage than necessary. If you are not sure whether all of your pipes are unfrozen yet, it might be best to shut off the water to the house if you are gone and then turn it on slowly when you are present so you can watch for leaks as your pipes are re-pressurized after everything has thawed,” Duhon said.

Moving forward

As the Katy area works to recover from Winter Storm Uri, many of the area’s residents are still working to repair their homes due to burst pipes, address immense and unexpected electrical bills – some reaching thousands of dollars even though power was out at their homes for most of the week of Feb. 15 – and get back into an already-awkward routine in the era of COVID-19.

As of Saturday, Feb. 20, President Joe Biden had declared a disaster for the state of Texas as a result of Uri and associated damages. The move frees up disaster assistance through FEMA and other government agencies.

Price gouging is also a concern for area residents and county officials as water outages and other disaster-related shortages came to bear in the counties that make up the Katy area.

“We need to talk about scammers,” said Hidalgo. “As we’ve seen, disasters bring out the best in people – and also they bring out the worst in some. We continue to hear stories of folks trying to take advantage of the situation and charge unfair prices for vital resources.”

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee has set up a website with information regarding how to file a complaint related to price gouging, Hidalgo said. She added that residents who suspect they are a victim of price gouging should keep any related receipts, make note of the situation and report price gouging incidents promptly.

Fort Bend County Judge KP George said Fort Bend County has also set up a hotline and website for price gouging.

In Waller County, Duhon said residents can file a complaint with the Waller County District Attorney’s Office or through the Office of Attorney General which has a website set up for such complaints.

According to the Texas Attorney General’s website, price gouging is a violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices-Consumer Protection Act.

Residents still facing issues related to the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri should refer to the sidebar for local resources which may be able to help.

The storm also put a hold on issuing COVID-19 vaccinations throughout the area. However, vaccinations had resumed as of Tuesday afternoon in all three counties. Health officials were emphasizing providing second doses of the vaccines prior to once again providing initial doses.

Accountability remains on the horizon regarding what area officials cited as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’ failure to ensure Texas’ power infrastructure was prepared for a winter storm. Texas Governor Greg Abbott made addressing the concerns a top priority for the Texas Legislature after natural gas, coal and wind energy sources went down due to various problems.

ERCOT Senior Director Dan Woodlin told Bloomberg News on Feb. 15 that the majority of the state’s power woes were associated with “frozen instruments at natural gas, coal and even nuclear facilities, as well as limited supplies of natural gas.”

Winter Storm Uri

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