Texas winter storm: US President Joe Biden to declare a major disaster

20 February 2021, 07:27 | Updated: 20 February 2021, 07:29

Shoppers at H-E-B Plus! in Flour Bluff were met with empty shelves on Thursday
Shoppers at H-E-B Plus! in Flour Bluff were met with empty shelves on Thursday. Picture: Courtney Sacco/USA Today Network/Sipa USA

By Asher McShane

US President Joe Biden is to sign a major disaster declaration after winter storms hit Texas, claiming lives, leaving millions of people without power for days and causing water shortages.

The record-low temperatures have claimed at least 69 lives, and created shortages of clean drinking water due to burst pipes, with people told to boil tap water before drinking it.

The weather shut down Memphis airport on Friday and left hospitals struggling to maintain sanitary conditions.

In Texas, seven million people - a quarter of the population of the nation's second-largest state - were under orders to boil tap water before drinking it because low water pressure could have allowed bacteria to seep into the system.

Shoppers queue for food outside a Texas supermarket during the big freeze
Shoppers queue for food outside a Texas supermarket during the big freeze. Picture: PA

A man died at an Abilene health care facility when a lack of water pressure made medical treatment impossible.

About 260,000 homes and businesses in the Tennessee county that includes Memphis were told to boil water because of water main ruptures and pumping station problems.

Restaurants that could not do so were ordered to close. And water pressure problems prompted Memphis International Airport to cancel all incoming and outgoing flights on Friday.

Water to be loaded into vehicles is stacked at a City of Houston water distribution site
Water to be loaded into vehicles is stacked at a City of Houston water distribution site. Picture: AP Photo/David J. Phillip

In Jackson, Mississippi, most of the city of about 161,000 had no running water. Crews pumped water to refill city tanks but faced a shortage of chemicals for treatment because icy roads made it difficult for distributors to deliver them, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said.

He said the city's water mains are more than 100 years old and not built to handle freezing weather.

"We are dealing with an extreme challenge with getting more water through our distribution system," Mr Lumumba said.

The city was providing water for flushing toilets and drinking, but residents had to pick it up, leaving the elderly and those living on icy roads vulnerable.

Lisa Thomas said her driveway on a hill in Jackson was a sheet of ice. Her husband, who is on a defibrillator and heart monitor, has only enough heart medication to get him through Sunday because she has not been able to go to the pharmacy.

"People are in dire need here," Ms Thomas said.

People across the South of the US have been without heat or electricity for days after the ice and snow storms earlier in the week, there have been power blackouts from Minnesota to Texas.

Texas electrical grid operators said electricity transmission had returned to normal for the first time since historic snowfall and single-digit temperatures created a surge in demand for electricity to warm up homes - buckling the state's power grid and causing the widespread blackouts.

Governor Greg Abbott ordered an investigation into the failure for a state known as the US energy capital.

ERCOT officials have defended their preparations and the decision to begin forced outages Monday as the grid reached a breaking point.

The storms left a further 330,000 people from Virginia to Louisiana without power.

About 60,000 people in Oregon on Friday were still enduring a week-long outage following a massive ice and snow storm.

Oregon's governor ordered the National Guard to go door-to-door in the hardest-hit areas to ensure residents have enough food and water.

The extreme weather was blamed for the deaths of at least 69 people, including many who perished struggling to get warm and a Tennessee farmer who tried to save two calves that apparently wandered onto a frozen pond.

Federal Emergency Management Agency acting administrator Bob Fenton said teams in Texas were distributing fuel, water, blankets and other supplies.

"What has me most worried is making sure that people stay warm," Mr Fenton said on CBS This Morning.

In many areas, water pressure dropped after lines froze and because people left faucets dripping to prevent pipes from icing, authorities said.

As of Friday afternoon, more than 1,300 Texas public water systems and 159 counties had reported weather-related operational disruptions affecting more than 14.9 million people, according to Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokeswoman Tiffany Young.

More than 1 million gallons (3.8 million litres) of water was being trucked to the Texas capital on Friday. But Austin's water director, Greg Maszaros, implored residents to minimise the use of home faucets because "there's still a lot of unknowns as we pressurise the system".

Houston residents probably will have to boil tap water in the fourth-largest US city until Sunday or Monday, said Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Water service was restored on Friday to two Houston Methodist community hospitals, but officials were still bringing in drinking water and some elective surgeries were cancelled, spokeswoman Gale Smith said.

St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis said it was forced to switch to bottled water and bagged ice for all consumption and that staff and patients were washing with hand sanitiser and no-rinse bathing wipes. All non-urgent surgeries were postponed.

More than 192,000 Louisiana residents - some still struggling to recover from last August's Hurricane Laura - had no water service on Friday, according to the state health department. Tens of thousands more remained under boil-water advisories.

Bulk and bottled water deliveries were planned on Friday to the hardest-hit Louisiana areas with a focus on hospitals, nursing homes and dialysis centres, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said, adding that he was hopeful that warmer weather expected during the weekend would speed up repairs.