'Just crippling': Texans devastated by ice storm are now hunting empty shelves for food and water
AUSTIN — The slow-moving winter disaster pummeling Texas that began with snow, ice and widespread blackouts is now moving into a new phase: A dire lack of food and fresh water.
Supermarket chains that remained open in past disasters have shuttered in the face of power outages and impassable roads. Cities like Houston and Austin are on citywide water boil orders, even though many homes don’t have power. And stores that are open are often lined with empty shelves, as delivery trucks struggle to reach them over still-icy roads.
Joe Giovannoli, 29, arrived at a Central Market supermarket in Austin at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, an hour-and-a-half before it opened. Minutes later, more than 200 people had lined up behind him in the biting 26-degree weather.
Giovannoli’s wife is three months pregnant and the power in their one-bedroom Austin apartment blinked out Tuesday night. After a water pipe broke, firefighters also turned off the building’s water, he said. Giovannoli said he realized he still had it better than many others across Texas, but worried how long things will take to get back to normal.
“This is going to be the next phase after things defrost,” he said, looking at the long line forming behind him. “It’s been mentally degrading.”
One of those waiting in line behind him was Johnny LaTouf, 62, owner of the Skylark Lounge, a well-known blues club in East Austin. LaTouf’s home never lost power but his ex-wife, son, two daughters and their families all lost power and moved in with him: 10 people, five dogs and one turtle in total.
LaTouf said he wished local and state leaders had done a better job of warning people about the impending disaster. For now, he hoped to pick up milk and some canned goods to get him and his clan through the next few days.
“It’s really important to be connected to your family and your neighbors,” he said. “That’s what gets you through this.”
A few minutes before the store opened its doors, a manager stepped outside and warned those waiting in line that supplies inside were low: No produce, no baked goods, not much canned food.
“We haven’t had a delivery in four days,” he said.
In Harris County, the largest in Texas with nearly 5 million residents, more than 33,000 homes remained without power Thursday and thousands of people didn't have access to clean water, said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top executive. When the power went out at Harris County Public Health Department and then the generator failed, officials had to rescue more than 8,000 COVID-19 vaccines, she said.
“It’s definitely a scramble,” Hidalgo said. “And it’s something that’s going to take us a few days to recover from.”
Texas officials have ordered 7 million people across the state to boil tap water before drinking it, following days of record-low temperatures that shuttered water treatment plants and froze pipes. At least two Austin-area hospitals lost water pressure and heat and one was forced to evacuate some patients. More than three dozen deaths across the U.S. over the past few days have been blamed on the extreme weather.
As of early Thursday, more than 450,000 homes and businesses across Texas remained without power, down from a peak of more than 4 million earlier in the week. The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced plans to deploy more than 700,000 liters of bottled water, more than 60,000 blankets and industrial-sized generators to help power hospitals and other critical structures.
But the immediate lack of supplies has made a tough situation tougher.
"This storm is stressing our entire community in ways we have never experienced," Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk said at a news conference Thursday.
People throughout Texas pinned down by icy roads and lacking power and water have ventured out to stores only to find long lines snaking around the building or shelves bereft of basic items, like milk, bread and bottled water.
H-E-B supermarkets, known to reliably stay open during most disasters, including Hurricane Harvey in 2017, were forced to close or reduce hours of many of its stores this week due to power outages, according to its website. As of Thursday, 10 stores in the supermarket chain, which includes Central Market stores, in Central Texas remained closed.
Delivering food to those in need has been a struggle throughout the state. Workers and volunteers at the San Antonio Food Bank are used to delivering groceries and prepared meals to evacuees from other disasters, including 2005's Hurricane Katrina in southern Louisiana and evacuees from Hurricane Harvey in Texas.
But they've never been tasked with delivering food while in a disaster themselves, said Eric Cooper, the organization's president and chief executive. Since the winter storm arrived Sunday, volunteers have not been able to come in and delivery trucks have been paralyzed, he said.
"It has been in some ways just crippling," he said. "It's difficult to get our trucks on the road, it's tough to get employees in. We’re probably operating at 30% of what we normally do."
The food bank teamed up with San Antonio police and firefighters to bring snacks and meals to residents running out of supplies, Cooper said. As soon as the roads clear, he plans to amp up his grocery-delivery service.
"The next few days are going to be pretty critical for our city and our state," he said.
Even as the ice thaws and power gets restored, water won’t immediately return to homes in the Austin area, Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said during a phone call with reporters. Reservoirs, which hold up to 100 million gallons, need to refill, and water samples need to be tested for harmful bacteria before restoring service, he said.
“We have to work this in a methodical, detailed way,” Meszaros said.
Meanwhile, county officials across Texas are strategizing on how best to feed and bring water to those devastated by the storm.
Harris County officials included a feature on their official website where residents can click through and see which major food stores are open. Hidalgo, the county executive, said she's most worried about the lack of drinkable water in her community.
County officials have been scouring warehouses for water supplies and emergency response officials will be working to bring water to hospitals and homes well after temperatures warm and lights turn on in homes, she said.
“It’s not just a weather emergency,” Hidalgo said. “This is a multifaceted disaster.”
To help with food donations, visit: www.houstonfoodbank.org, www.safoodbank.org or www.feedingtexas.org.
Contributing: Associated Press
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