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With storm over, Austinites' eyes turn to long recovery

Asher Price
Austin American-Statesman
Sean Burg and Josh Morgan load up supplies in a car at a  Central Texas Food Bank event at Del Valle High School on Saturday. The drive-thru event offered food, water and milk in the aftermath of the winter storm that has left millions in Texas without clean drinking water.

Austinites emerged Saturday from a nightmarish week of darkness, cold and thirst to survey the damage to their homes and take stock of supplies.

Many, still left without water as an energy calamity turned into a water supply catastrophe, flocked to food banks for household essentials. A massive phalanx of plumbers and city workers, meanwhile, deployed to repair a region whose very bones had been broken, as pipes massive and small burst with water.

As of Saturday, Texas homeowners and renters in 77 counties, including Travis, Hays and Williamson, who sustained damage related to the disaster may apply for assistance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency by visiting www.disasterassistance.gov or by calling 800-621-3362.

The individual assistance can include "grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster," according to the White House.

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Austin Water workers Joey Putman, left, and Salvador Tinajero repair a broken water main near 11th and Red River streets on Friday.

By midday Saturday, the city of Austin had distributed at least 8,000 cases of water at shelters and other critical care facilities and distributed nearly 3,000 more through such partners as Capital Metro, which was sending water door-to-door for its Metro Access customers — people whose disabilities prevent them from riding its other bus and rail services. 

Across Texas, about 14.3 million people — half the state's population — lived in areas with compromised water systems, according to Toby Baker, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

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But, he said, the situation might have stabilized: On Saturday, 156,000 Texans were without any tap water, down from 352,000 the previous day. 

At least 64 boil water notices were rescinded Saturday as conditions returned to normal.

Damian Pantoja prepares to load a truck at Del Valle High School with bottled water during a Central Texas Food Bank drive-thru event Saturday.

"So I think the hope is, tracking this, we've hit the worst and now it's stabilized, and now it’s about getting out of the hole we’re in," Baker said. 

But one of the areas still with a boil water notice on Saturday was Austin — though officials sounded optimistic that could change by the end of the weekend.

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"With warming temperatures and improved road conditions, expanded deliveries of supplies and equipment have begun to flow into our facilities," Austin Water officials said in a statement. "A large number of freeze damaged infrastructure has been repaired and water distribution has shown marked improvement today. Should current trends continue, and with the help of water conservation efforts across the city, customers could see improvements in water service as early as the end of this weekend.   

Across Texas' skies and on the ground, more than 3,000 military personnel were shipping water and other supplies, including by at least four Blackhawk and two Chinook helicopters flying out of Austin. From Fort Worth, two C-130 cargo planes — flying warehouses — were recording at least four flights of supplies across Texas.

Behind the scenes, a lot of state activity was taking place to speed recovery.

Aiming to augment an army of plumbers now tending to burst pipes across the state, Gov. Greg Abbott waived certain regulations to allow plumber apprentices to temporarily perform plumbing repairs without direct supervision by a licensed plumber.  

"By allowing certain registered and qualified plumber's apprentices to perform these repairs, we will be able to expedite the recovery process throughout our communities," Abbott said. 

Abbott also issued waivers to temporarily let the state cover overtime payments for meat inspectors in Texas as they work to restore the meat supply over the next week.

"Meat inspectors are crucial to restoring our meat supply in our state, and I thank them for working around the clock for their fellow Texans," Abbott said.

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Austin Energy officials put out a statement Saturday to quell anxieties stemming from media reports about potential massive electric bills for non-Austin Energy customers.

The utility's officials said they "want to stress to our customers that Austin Energy will not benefit financially in any way from this winter storm event."

Their statement continued: "Anyone without power during this time period had no electric use recorded from meters during these outage events. Austin Energy customers are charged only for the power consumed and will be charged at the existing rates as approved in the November 2020 rate tariff."

Shelters in Austin continue to operate, with about 500 people at shelters in the area. As of Saturday, there remained limited space in shelters at Del Valle High School, Mendez Middle School and Reilly Elementary School. The Palmer Event Center was at capacity.