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Water Problems Plague Millions Of Texans Following Storm Crisis

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start today with a focus on the ongoing effects from that deadly winter storm that hit several states a few days ago. Earlier today, President Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Texas, which was hit especially hard. The move frees up federal funding to help rebuild and recover from the storm. Throughout the state, freezing temperatures and extreme weather had a devastating effect on infrastructure, especially the water supply, affecting millions of people. Here's Florian Martin of Houston Public Media with the latest on that.

FLORIAN MARTIN, BYLINE: Volunteers handed out thousands of bottles of water at a distribution site in San Antonio.

MICHAEL WILLIAMS: It's been challenging because we have five people.

F MARTIN: Michael Williams (ph) came here from the small town of Boerne, just outside San Antonio. He says he and his family have been without running water since Monday.

WILLIAMS: Our community has - in Boerne has really banded together. So challenging, but we can get through it.

F MARTIN: After days without electricity, the vast majority of Texans have had their power restored, according to the state's grid manager. Temperatures are back to above freezing in most of the state. But clean water could remain an issue through the rest of the weekend and beyond. The problem is low water pressure.

LINA HIDALGO: We've seen a cascade of effects.

F MARTIN: Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is the chief executive for the county that includes Houston.

HIDALGO: The power outages affected the generators that keep the pressure going. And the pipes that have burst have also been a problem for the - leading to the loss of water pressure.

F MARTIN: When the pressure sinks below a certain level, Texas cities are required to issue boil water notices because the water could become contaminated. Notices are in effect in large cities like Houston, Austin and San Antonio. This week, many people ran their faucets on a constant trickle, something plumbers advise to keep pipes from freezing.

JOHN INGRAM: Well, it's a Catch-22.

F MARTIN: John Ingram (ph) is a plumber in Houston.

INGRAM: Yes, it does take away water. And we are in a crisis as far as water pressure and keeping the pressure up across the city. However, at the same time, that's really the only option you have in maintaining water in your home.

F MARTIN: Thanks to all those burst pipes, demand for plumbers now far exceeds supply. One Houston church has reached out to partners across the country to get volunteer plumbers to Texas. Chris Seay is the pastor at Ecclesia Houston. He says they usually try to organize emergency help like this for home repairs after tropical storms and hurricanes.

CHRIS SEAY: This time, we need a little bit more skilled labor. Mucking houses is a whole lot easier than plumbing repairs and burst pipes. But just following in that vein, we know that's what we need.

F MARTIN: Seay says the response has been slow as other states have also had issues with the weather, and people are hesitant to travel during the pandemic. But he's confident they'll get a team of volunteers together for the communities most in need. The church is paying for travel, food and accommodation.

For most Texans, the nightmare will probably be over next week, but many others will have to deal with the storm's aftermath for a while longer.

RACHEL FINKIN: We went outside, and our neighbors have kind of been checking on each other, and it was the same for everyone.

F MARTIN: Rachel Finkin (ph) lives in Austin, where large areas are still without water.

FINKIN: We're just trying to do the bare minimum right now - basically, drinking water and flushing toilets. We can't really do much beyond that.

F MARTIN: She says they've even had to collect snow from outside to melt in the tub.

For NPR News, I'm Florian Martin in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.