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Houston mayor accuses energy industry of ‘price gouging’ as Texas warms up after historic storm

John Bacon
 
| USA TODAY

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A warming trend was bringing welcome relief to Texas, in full-blown recovery mode Sunday from a winter storm that at its powerful peak left more than 4 million people without electricity and more than 14 million under boil-water advisories.

What AccuWeather described as “one of the stormiest weather patterns in decades” last week triggered rounds of snow and ice driven by Arctic air displaced by the polar vortex.

Over 70 deaths have been linked to the intense cold and damaging storms. About half the deaths reported so far occurred in Texas, including several linked to carbon monoxide poisoning and house fires in areas where power was out and people were struggling to keep warm.

Multiple fatalities also in Tennessee, Kentucky, Oregon and some Southern and Midwestern states.

Texas, where many power plants and water facilities were ill-equipped to handle the wintry onslaught, took the brunt of the damage. Almost 1,500 public water systems in Texas had reported disrupted operations, said Toby Baker executive director of the state Commission on Environmental Quality.

The recovery was being aided by escalating temperatures. Houston was expecting a high of 67 degrees on Sunday. Austin’s forecast called for about the same or warmer temperatures.

Winter storm moves into Northeast: Texans will see better weather ahead

Still, more than 33 million Texas homes and businesses remained without power Sunday. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner noted that a week ago the state Public Utilities Commission approved a electric rate hike because of a scarcity of electricity.

“That rate hike needs to be rolled back,” Turner said. “What a prime example of ‘price gouging.’ Their inaction created the scarcity of electricity for which they are charging us.”

In Austin, temperatures had slid above freezing on Friday for the first time in a week. Austin Water said Sunday that storage in reservoirs had climbed to 72 million gallons, but that at least 100 million gallons was needed to help build water pressure system-wide.

“We urge customers with water service to limit water use to essential needs and follow mandatory water restrictions,” Austin Water tweeted. “Violations of these restrictions should be reported to Austin 3-1-1.”

In San Antonio, authorities said Sunday that water had been restored to 98% of the city.

A thin silver lining for residents of Austin and San Antonio: Lick Honest Ice Creams was planning an ice cream giveaway on Sunday from noon to 9 p.m. at its Austin and San Antonio shops. 

“It’s been a week for the history books, y’all, and we hope we can make yours a little bit better,” the company posted on Facebook. “We’ve missed scooping for you and can’t wait to see you again!”

You need a break: Lick Honest Ice Creams serving free ice cream Sunday

Help was coming from all over.  Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, volunteered at the Houston Food Bank on Saturday and announced her fundraising effort for the storm recovery effort in the state had surpassed $4 million.

“That’s the New York spirit, that’s the Texas spirit, that’s the American spirit,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

Elsewhere, almost 50,000 homes and businesses in West Virginia were without power Sunday. The number was almost 40,000 in Mississippi, where a high temperature in Jackson of 61 degrees was forecast Sunday.

“Crews continue to work around the clock,” Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves tweeted. “Weather continues to improve with high temps well above freezing in most places.”

As power is restored across the state, Entergy Mississippi President and CEO Haley Fisackerly cautioned customers to slowly phase in use to avoid overloading the system. He suggested turning off major appliances ahead of power being turned back on.

“I know when those lights come back on, you’re going to be ready to clean up that house and wash those dishes in your dishwasher, or wash your clothes,” he said. “Do that in stages. That could create problems back on the grid, but also it’s not good for your home to … overload your breakers.”

Most of the city of about 160,000 lacked running water, and officials blamed city water mains that are more than 100 years old and not built for freezing weather.

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.

In Tennessee, National Weather Service meteorologist Josh Barnwell said Nashville’s shaded streets remained icy and treacherous over the weekend. A high of 50 degrees Sunday was likely to help.

“If this was all snow, it might melt faster,” Barnwell said. “It’s going to take a little bit.” 

Contributing: Addie Broyles, Austin 360; Rachel Wegner, Nashville Tennessean; Mississippi Clarion Ledger staff; The Associated Press


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