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| Weather |

Hidalgo Warns 150-Year Freeze Possible As One Million-Plus Still Lack Power

A towel, a wing and a prayer that the pipes don't freeze.
A towel, a wing and a prayer that the pipes don't freeze.
Photo by Margaret Downing
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Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo took to the Houston TRANSTAR podium Monday evening to express her concerns about the million-plus area residents still stuck without power during this unprecedented winter storm. She once again urged locals to keep off the roads and stay home if at all possible to avoid even greater catastrophe as temperatures are set to potentially hit 150-year as Tuesday morning approaches.

“To those who have lost power: I know you are frustrated,” Hidalgo said. “I know you are miserable. I know you’re uncomfortable. I know it is very miserable in this cold without heat.”

One million homes and businesses out of CenterPoint Energy’s 2.6 million customers are currently without power due to power outages, Hidalgo explained. She then said that only 70,000 of those “are out because of weather damage” and that those are the only outages CenterPoint has any power to restore itself.

The rest, Hidalgo said, lay at the feet of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (the state’s power grid operator), which required CenterPoint and other electricity providers across the state to shut off service to scores of customers when it became clear that energy demand far outpaced the state’s diminished electricity production capabilities after numerous power generators went offline due to the storm.

“The bottom line is that [neither] CenterPoint nor I can give you an estimate of when the power will come back on. And in fact, as much as we wish it weren’t so, things will likely get worse before they get better.”

CenterPoint senior vice president Jason Ryan explained that while CenterPoint has been able to bring back power to about 200,000 customers already, the vast majority of those who still lack power shouldn’t expect to have their service restored at least through Monday. Whether more homes come back online or more Houston area residents lose power in the hours ahead all depends on additional power generators getting up and running again.

“We understand that additional generation could come on, but additional generation could also go offline this evening. We don’t have perfect information and insight into the companies that operate those generation facilities,” Ryan said, “and that’s why I understand your frustration and share that frustration.”

Gov. Greg Abbott took to Twitter Monday afternoon to chastise everyone who believes that today’s disastrous power outages mean the state’s power grid was compromised in any way, a highly-selective interpretation of events that hinges pretty closely on how exactly you define the word “compromised.”

In a different tone, Hidalgo echoed Ryan’s uncertainty and reminded beleaguered, chilly county residents that their power probably wouldn’t be restored any time soon.

“There’s a high chance the power will be out for these folks until the weather gets better, which will not be for a couple of days,” Hidalgo warned, a point county meteorologist Jeff Lindner drove home.

“Make no mistake: this is historically cold air that is coming into this region,” Lindner said. “Forecast lows tonight [are] anywhere from five to 10 degrees; the all time record low — the coldest that has ever been in the city — is five degrees… highs tomorrow may not rise above freezing, and so that will continue to create issues on the roadways.” Lindner is especially concerned about invisible, highly-dangerous black ice forming on roads once sun-melted snow and ice flash-freezes once the day’s solar heat is out of the picture.

In a sobering reminder of how the brunt of extreme weather events like this one often falls on the least fortunate among us, Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jason Spencer said that a local homeless man who was living in his van was found dead on Monday, the first confirmed local casualty from this awful storm.

And even the important didn't escape unscathed. In early evening the Houston Chronicle sent out a letter to its subscribers saying it had been without power since 2 a.m. "Even during Hurricane Harvey, our facility never lost power and we never stopped producing the print edition, but each weather emergency brings its own twists." The daily said while it will continue to post updates on houstonchronicle.com and will produce an e-newspaper, it may not print a hard copy paper for Tuesday if it cannot be safely delivered.

And just so we don't forget that the current Arctic onslaught has hit while we’re still dealing with the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, Hidalgo described in detail the frenzy that ensued after county public health officials realized in the wee hours of Monday morning that a power outage and backup generator failure at a health department vaccine storage facility left 8,430 doses of Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine at temperatures higher than the recommended storage protocols.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said there's still plenty of awful cold on the horizon as power outages linger across the region.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said there's still plenty of awful cold on the horizon as power outages linger across the region.
Screenshot

Over the next several hours, Hidalgo said her team at the county scrambled to determine where these vaccines — which the county believed would go bad at the end of the day due to the storm-induced storage snafu — could be delivered where they’d all be able to get put into arms by the end of the day. Focusing on places with high numbers of people already present on-site that also had medical staff on-hand to ensure speedy injections, the county chose Rice University, Ben Taub and LBJ Hospitals, Houston Methodist and the Harris County Jail.

Hidalgo said 5,410 of those doses were distributed to those partners (3,000 to the county jail, 600 combined to LBJ and Ben Taub, 1,000 to Houston Methodist and 810 to Rice University) and that no shots went to waste.

The remaining 3,020 doses were put back into cold storage after county officials reached out to Moderna, which after investigating the situation informed the county health department that the doses actually wouldn’t go bad by the end of the day after all if they were re-refrigerated, even though that would mean there’d be a smaller window of time to use those doses upon thawing.

“It is incredible,” Hidalgo said, “that they were able to get those vaccines and they were able to figure out from Moderna how to save the ones that we were concerned we may not be able to distribute.”

“So it’s a point of pride that this was figured out, that it was dealt with,” she continued, “and it should be a point of pride to our partners, from Rice to the hospitals to the sheriff’s department, that helped stand up and get this done.”

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