Over a million Texans still without drinking water as smaller communities and apartments face biggest challenges

Over a million Texans still without drinking water as smaller communities and apartments face biggest challenges
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaking at the WTTC Global Summit 2016, World Travel & Tourism Council
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Over 1.4 million Texans still faced water disruptions on Wednesday afternoon, more than a week after Texas' winter storms wreaked havoc on the state's power grid and water services.

More than 20,000 people were completely without running water Wednesday afternoon because of water main breaks, mechanical failures, frozen or broken water lines or other issues, a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokesperson said.

Experts estimate that damage from the storm will cost billions. Thousands of Texans are facing damage from burst pipes, which have flooded homes and left many without water. This problem can be especially rampant for apartment dwellers, who live in multi-unit buildings where it can be more difficult in finding the problem areas.

Since a peak of about 14.9 million Texans faced water disruptions on Friday, the state's water situation has steadily improved. More than 1,100 boiling water notices issued after the storm have since been rescinded, including in Houston, Austin, Arlington, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Galveston.

Systems with smaller customer bases make up the bulk of those with lingering problems, TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker said. Approximately 600 communities with populations less than 500 are under boil water notices. Around 360 more with populations between 501 and 3,300 are also telling their residents to boil water before consumption.

"We kind of saw stuff all over the map, from frozen pipes underground to frozen chemical lines, to power that went down," Baker said. Smaller plants aren't required to have back-up generators, which could also have contributed to the initial problems, he said.

"I think we'll continue to see the numbers go down," he added. "At some point we'll plateau, but we're not there yet."

The Texas Apartment Association said that the cold weather has damaged plumbing systems in buildings throughout the state, but the exact number of units that are still affected is unclear.

"We haven't seen any kind of comprehensive damage assessment yet, but we do know that many of our members, just like everybody else, have suffered from having burst pipes and dealing with other consequences from the power outages and the freezing weather," said David Mintz, vice president of government affairs for the apartment association. "The biggest challenge right now is just people working as hard as they can to get properties back up and running and trying to meet the needs of their residents."

Some apartment residents like Dallas educator Tamara Tribble had to find solutions on their own during the storm. On Feb. 16 at 4:45 p.m., the management of her building sent her and other residents an email warning that they would shut off water in less than an hour. The temperature at that time was 18 degrees.

"They told us to fill the bathtubs because they were going to cut the water," Tribble said via phone on Tuesday. "But I didn't see the email until 9 p.m."

Electricity was also gone by then. Cold and without power or water, Tribble and her roommate, who is unemployed, had to leave for a hotel, where they paid $200 for two nights.

Another message from the building later informed them that some of the building's pipes had burst. On the morning of Feb. 19, they received an email that said water was being restored and they went back to avoid an expensive hotel bill.

"I checked out of the hotel. I lost all my food. I'm an educator, I have a limited budget," Tribble said. And, worse, her apartment didn't have water yet.

For the next few days, she had to wash herself with a cloth and a bucket. Stressed, tired and worried about how to clean her place, Tribble said she grew angry and anxious. She left the TV on when she slept — something she never does — just to be aware if she lost power again. She said that whoever is responsible for the power and water outages needs to be held responsible.

"There should be some class-action lawsuit. I don't care if I get two pennies. They need to pay for damages, they need to pay for loss of life," she said.

Mintz said that apartment building managers face a lot of challenges in getting their buildings back to normal. In addition to finding in-demand plumbers and supplies, they need to coordinate with utility companies or the city agencies.

"It can be more complex trying to do repairs at a multi-family property; because you're dealing with buildings that could be several stories, you could have many buildings on a property," Mintz said.

"If there's water coming in through somebody's ceiling, it might be the unit above them, but it could be the units next door or it could be buried somewhere inside the walls. You just have a lot more to go through."

Brad Casebier, owner of Austin-based Radiant Plumbing, echoed the complexity of apartment buildings. He said that single-family homes have individual water valves and issues are often isolated to a particular unit. That's not the case with apartment buildings.

"You get into an apartment, and more often than not, there's one valve that serves the entire community," Casebier said. "And so if one pipe breaks, the whole system shuts down, and this turns into a huge tragedy because you've got so many people affected potentially by just one broken pipe."

Jack Considine, a 26-year-old downtown Austin apartment resident, said he understands the exceptional circumstances that building managers are going through in Texas. But he wishes there could be better communication. He said he is lucky compared with other people: During the storm, he never lost power."

And then on Wednesday, when things were flipping on, a bunch of my neighbors got their pipes burst," Considine said on Tuesday. That day, he got an email from management asking residents to prepare to not have water for 48 hours. "We are almost at seven days now, and we don't have a clear timeline."

Considine said he and his roommate have been getting water from the gutters to flush their toilet and had to ask friends to use their showers. Sometimes, they used bottled water to wash themselves. As of Wednesday evening, they were having water again, but not with the usual pressure levels that they had prior to the storm.

"It would be nice to have people [from the management] here, checking that people are ok, maybe offering water. It feels like a lack of concern now," he said.

Mintz pointed out that many apartment managers and owners might be experiencing the same issues with lack of information or clarity about when they might get plumbers or supplies to fix issues.

"They don't have all the answers for what's going on, so they're facing the same issues that people are trying to fix their houses or their businesses," Mintz said. "They may know that they've got to get a plumber out to the property or they've arranged for a plumber to get to the property and they're working, but may not know how long it's going to take to get it fixed. And they can't give very good information just because they don't have it."

Considine has also not received any information on rent abatements or compensation. The Texas Property Code allows a rent reduction in these cases, but according to housing lawyers it is difficult to apply because it requires a lawsuit and because many apartment leases bar tenants from taking this approach."

The law is very heavily tilted in favor of landlords in this area, and there were no improvements in the law despite the tragedies of Hurricane Harvey," said Nelson Mock, attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, in an email.

The Texas Property Code does establish rules on how the repair process should be handled, but tenants must be up to date with rent. Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid has created a Frequently Asked Questions document for tenants to understand this process.

Renters in counties within the federal disaster declaration area could also get help from the Federal Emergency Management Administration.

Tenants with renters insurance could get some additional relief. The Insurance Council of Texas recommends that tenants with such policies check the details of their plans. These policies can often cover personal property damage and other expenses.

"When filing a claim, it's very important to ask your agent/insurance company or adjuster what is specifically covered under your policy and what is your deductible," said Camille Garcia, director of communications and public affairs for the organization, via email. "In this manner, the customer can make better decisions regarding their claim."

For Texans in smaller communities facing water outages or disruptions, Baker of TCEQ says they should contact their local providers with questions or concerns. They're able to answer questions and set the timeline. But he said to contact TCEQ if they have a complaint against the provider.

The commission is reaching out to systems in smaller communities and trying to connect them with resources, whether it be state support or referring them to labs that can run bacteria tests on their water, Baker said.

While Tribble said her insurance will cover the expenses of her spoiled food, she's uncertain whether she'll get a refund for the hotel. But, at least, on Tuesday night, she got good news. At around 9 p.m. she went to one of her faucets and turned it on to finally find running water.

"No one told me that my water is on. It came out, and I was [like]'Oh my goodness, it's working!'" she said. After a week without water in her apartment, she took a hot shower. "It was such a good feeling."

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