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Updates From Austin As Texas Faces Frigid Temps

NOEL KING, HOST:

The electricity is back on for millions of people in Texas. Now the problem is water.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER GUSHING)

KING: Alex Whiteway recorded this video outside of a middle school. A pump broke and water gushed onto the frozen ground, and his crew worked to shut off the valve. Whiteway is the assistant director of water utilities for the city of Mansfield, which is about 45 minutes outside of Dallas. He says lines have burst around the city, and his team is working in extreme conditions.

ALEX WHITEWAY: They're in there on their knees and putting a clamp on, and they're getting wet. You know, it's freezing temperatures.

KING: Many families in Texas are being advised to boil what little tap water they have; others just have no water at all. Dr. Joseph Varon is chief of staff at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston. He's been managing care for COVID patients for 336 days straight.

JOSEPH VARON: Just hell - both personally as well as professionally, they have been very difficult. At home, for example, I have no water. We just got back electricity after almost 96 hours without electricity. I've literally have to rent a hotel room so I can take a shower because I haven't taken a shower in 72 hours. Professionally, the hospital and every hospital in the Houston metropolitan area is having issues. We have no water. Many of the hospitals in the Houston metropolitan area have no water. It's a true disaster because many of the machines that we work with, many of them require water to function.

KING: He says they've had to transfer patients to other hospitals that have water, but that space is limited. A lot of Texans want to see someone answer for this. But who? Governor Greg Abbott has asked the state legislature to investigate the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, that manages the electric grid for about 90% of the state. And State Senator Jose Menendez, a Democrat from San Antonio, says Texas should have winterized its infrastructure after a rare winter storm hit back in 2011. He says it's not just ERCOT that should be held accountable but also Texas politicians, including himself.

JOSE MENENDEZ: I'm one of 31 senators, and 10 years ago, I was one of 150 House members that should have demanded more. Look, the average Texans shouldn't have to be required to know how the electric grid works, shouldn't be required to know that power plants are winterized or not winterized. They're paying their bills, and they elect us to go up to Austin, Texas, to make tough decisions. And if we don't have what it takes to do that and take the responsibility, then we, obviously, as elected officials, have failed.

KING: Earlier today, I talked to Natasha Harper-Madison. She's a member of Austin's City Council.

NATASHA HARPER-MADISON: For many folks, even folks for whom power had been restored from the original blackout, we are experiencing some residual power outages just basically as a result of the storm. I mean, ultimately, what we're talking about here is this is a Katrina-scale crisis happening across our entire state and especially right here in Austin.

KING: Talk to me a bit about how specific sorts of people are handling this. I imagine it would be a very difficult time to have young children or infants. I imagine it would be a very difficult time to be an elderly person who might need some sort of physical support. What sorts of stories are you hearing about how people are dealing and coping?

HARPER-MADISON: We're desperately waiting for state and the federal cavalry to come a runnin'. In the meantime, we're seeing an astonishing response from our own community. People are stepping up in ways that, frankly, will bring you to tears. They're opening their homes to complete strangers so that they can warm themselves, have a bite to eat, charge their devices. Restaurants are serving up free food. Breweries are stepping up to distribute drinking water. I am so empowered to see how the community where I was born and raised is responding right now. It's ridiculous how many times any of us have had to say the words historic crisis, unprecedented challenge. But my community, my city, is responding. People talk about Austin as this big tech industry boomtown of a million people. You know, we're the capital city of one of the largest states in our republic. But we do still have that small-town look-after-each-other spirit that will get us through this absolutely awful nightmare.

KING: What kinds of disparities are you seeing from neighborhood to neighborhood, and how are they playing out?

HARPER-MADISON: The kinds of disparities we're seeing from neighborhood to neighborhood absolutely have to do with communities that have been disinvested in for decades. I'm getting evidence of people's infrastructure failing, people's pipes failing, people's toilets failing, people not having access to water because their homes have flooded, people not having access to their homes that have electricity, but they're, you know, full of water. So I think we're really just - you know, our city is stepping up, our county is stepping up, individuals, community members, you know, our faith-based organizations, our social organizations, everybody is stepping up. But there's only so much they can do to combat failing infrastructure. As power was resumed, as people's, you know, interruptions were reconciled, we didn't see, you know, an inequitable distribution of the reconciliation of the power, but some of the manifestations of the loss of power in the first place and some of the inability for folks to get access to what they need absolutely has everything to do with inequity.

KING: You heard State Senator Jose Menendez a little earlier. He says politicians, including himself, need to be held accountable. Do you agree with him? And who in your mind needs to be held accountable for this?

HARPER-MADISON: I absolutely agree with him. I think there needs to be a lot of finger-pointing happening right now, and I can't wait to get to that part. I think we have failed our constituents at every level. And I say we because I absolutely include myself to that consideration. I absolutely feel like we all could have done more. At every level, we could have done more. What we need right now is to not be pointing fingers but to really just get what people need. We need electricity, running water and cooking gas. And we can talk about who's to blame and where the critical failures occurred, where the infrastructural failures occurred, later.

KING: Austin City Council member Natasha Harper-Madison, thank you so much for being with us.

HARPER-MADISON: Thank you for having me. Everybody be well and be safe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.