Plunging temperatures, a lack of electricity and, now, a lack of water this week meant a new normal not just for the county residents stuck at home, but also those businesses that struggled to stay open or reopen.
Business owners awoke Thursday — the first day many residents saw sustained power this week — to assess the damage from the cold snap and attempt to get back to business as usual. It was anything but a typical day, however.
The 224-room Hotel Galvez on the island’s seawall this week saw demand for 1,000 rooms a night as locals sought warmer accommodations, said Marty Miles, complex general manager for the seawall property and downtown hotels The Tremont House and harbor House Hotel & Marina at Pier 21 in Galveston.
But the same problems driving many residents to businesses across the county — a lack of power, water and supplies — was inspiring many hotel and business owners to find creative and sometimes very unusual solutions just to continue commerce and provide routine services, they said.
As of noon Thursday, CenterPoint Energy reported only about 40,000 customers across the Houston region were without power, a sharp decline from the more than 1 million who went without power earlier in the week. But as the week progressed and temperatures rose, frozen pipes thawed and burst, creating water supply problems across the county.
Employees at Miles’ hotels, for instance, this week were filling buckets with borrowed water from nearby warehouses or other unusual sources and taking them to the historic hotel, Miles said.
Until water availability and pressure improve, employees must manually flush the toilet every time a guest uses it until water is restored, he said.
At least some Galveston County restaurants were operating Thursday with the added complication that employees had to boil water before using it.
Lower water pressure in the pipes allows groundwater and other contaminants to seep into older pipes that might have cracks. Some of that groundwater could contain harmful bacteria that can be eliminated only by boiling the water, officials said.
“The water boiling is just an extra step we have to do,” said Joleen Cogburn, a co-owner of Boyd’s One Stop along with the popular Boyd’s Cajun Grill Express in Texas City.
In some ways, Cogburn was lucky, she said. The business remained open through the week, selling wholesale, because the warehouse has a generator.
Several companies have canceled their orders because of icy conditions on the road, however, Cogburn said.
Cogburn made the decision to reopen the retail and food side of the business Thursday because electricity was restored early in the morning, she said.
Some restaurants have been less fortunate, however.
A walk-in freezer was the difference between The Spot, 3204 Seawall Blvd., losing the entire $25,000 in product it keeps at all times and the smaller loss the Galveston restaurant actually sustained, owner Dennis Byrd said.
Restaurant owners are handling the aftermath of the cold snap much like they would hurricanes and other natural disasters, Byrd said.
The Spot first reopened Wednesday and served about 1,000 hot meals, despite maintaining only intermittent power, said Lauren Desormeaux, director of operations for the restaurant.
The walk-in freezer at The Spot generally holds a steady temperature of about minus 5, Byrd said. Because temperatures fell so much during the cold snap, that temperature only increased about 10 degrees and much of the product was saved, Byrd said.
Byrd as of Thursday hadn’t made a full assessment of how much money he lost but estimated employees had to discard about 20 percent of product, or about $5,000.
The Spot as of Thursday was allowing only cash payments because of intermittent power service, Desormeaux said.
“We did it for speed of service,” she said. “To make sure everyone was served in a timely fashion.”
CoCo Crepes, Waffles & Coffee and Little Bella Mia, 2471 Interstate 45 S. in League City, both opened Thursday but aren’t serving any fountain soda, tap water or ice, said Manish Maheshwari, who owns them.
For similar reasons, Red River Bar-B-Que & Grill was only planning to open at 3 p.m. Thursday with a limited to-go menu, said Kevin Kiersh, owner of the restaurant and Red River Cantina.
The restaurants got power back in the buildings early Thursday and have water employees can boil but will remain to-go only so that no one goes in and gets drinks, Kiersh said.
Ami Stone, a co-owner of Stone Cold Meats, 3612 W. Main St., said her business has been comparatively lucky.
The business reopened to the public Wednesday and has been helping feed people for free and donating what it can to those working to feed people, Stone said.
The facility only lost power for about two hours, so the business owners didn’t lose any stock whatsoever, she said.
“We’re sitting on a golden island, I guess,” she said.
Two people died of exposure and a third died of possible carbon monoxide poisoning trying to get warm during this week’s bitterly cold temperatures and widespread power outages, the Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed Wednesday.
Up to four more Galveston County deaths are being investigated and are suspected of being connected to the brutal conditions, officials said.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees the state’s power grid, bore responsibility for the cold-related deaths for ordering CenterPoint Energy and other such companies to cut off power and maintain outages far longer than officials said they would, Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said.
The deaths are the first local ones confirmed and linked to the sub-freezing temperatures and widespread power outages gripping Texas this week.
Henry on Wednesday said he planned to ask the Galveston County District Attorney to investigate and consider possible charges against the companies, people and agencies who contributed to the power outages in the county.
“If we had been told that would happen, we would have considered an evacuation,” Henry said.
The exposure deaths included a 50-year-old man from Hitchcock and an 88-year-old woman from Bacliff, according to the medical examiner’s office.
A 70-year-old man from Santa Fe on Tuesday was found dead surrounded by heating devices inside a greenhouse, officials said. The man likely died of carbon monoxide poisoning, but investigators were waiting for a toxicology report to confirm that, officials said.
Autopsies still were being finalized on a 62-year-old man from Galveston, an 85-year-old woman from Dickinson, an 89-year-old woman from Hitchcock and a 62-year-old man from Santa Fe, officials said. All four deaths possibly are suspected of being connected to the brutal winter conditions.
In addition to the Galveston deaths, the medical examiner’s office confirmed two deaths from Brazoria County. A 39-year-old woman died of exposure in Angleton, and a 72-year-old man died of carbon monoxide poisoning in Pearland.
The county medical examiner provides death investigation services to Galveston, Brazoria and Matagorda counties.
Earlier this week, county officials announced they were securing a refrigerated trailer to hold bodies that would be arriving at the office this week. The death toll in the three-county region could be as high as 50 people, county officials said.
The trailer also was needed because of a lack of space in the small county medical examiner’s office and because of closures caused by the winter storm. Without power and water, local funeral homes weren’t able to accept bodies from the medical examiner’s office for embalming, meaning they have to stay in the county facility.
As of Thursday, no bodies have been placed in the trailer, officials said. Funeral homes began to pick up bodies from the examiner’s office in Texas City on Thursday, a spokesman said.
Officials don’t believe the death toll reported by the medical examiner’s is the limit of the fatalities caused by the cold, they said. Some deaths might not have been reported to the medical examiner’s office if someone, such as a family doctor, confirmed and determined a cause of death, Henry said.
It’s also possible some people who died might have lived alone and their bodies not yet discovered, Henry said.
Although the deaths haven’t been classified as homicides, Henry planned to ask Galveston County District Attorney Jack Roady to consider whether charges could be filed against people over the fatalities, he said.
County officials Monday were under the impression there would be rolling blackouts meant to last minutes or hours, Henry said. An initial announcement from ERCOT, sent at 1:25 a.m. Monday, said outages in state were planned to rotate between households.
Instead, the magnitude of power failures in the state caused more than 90 percent of the county to be plunged into darkness for days.
While many residents rejoiced Thursday at the long-awaited return of power and heat after days without either, some still were waiting in the dark and worried about continued electricity outages.
Many Galveston County residents had been out of power for days. The blackouts caused widespread disruption to lives and damage to property during an unusually long spell of dangerously frigid temperatures. Many huddled in their homes, while others sought shelter with friends or in hotels.
The Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office had confirmed at least two deaths were caused by the cold and suspects several more had been. County officials said more bodies were likely to be found in coming days.
The long blackouts resulted when the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees a grid supplying about 24 million power customers — about 90 percent of the market — ordered suppliers to cut their demand on the system by thousands of megawatts to prevent a total system failure, ERCOT officials said Wednesday.
That forced suppliers such as CenterPoint Energy and Texas-New Mexico Power Co. to shut off meters but without interrupting power to critical facilities, ERCOT said. The amount of power ERCOT demanded cut was far more than rolling blackouts could achieve, ERCOT officials said. The effect of that decision on consumers depended on where they lived and how much power their circuits were pulling, officials said.
With temperatures rising and more generation coming online, the ERCOT grid was in a much better shape Thursday, suppliers said.
That was not apparent to some Galveston County residents, however.
By Thursday afternoon, Donnie and Pat McAllister of Sea Isle on the island’s West End were going on 80 hours without power. The lights had flickered on for about 30 minutes Thursday morning and promptly gone off again, Donnie McAllister said.
“It is a long time,” McAllister said. “It’s not any different than a hurricane, I guess. It’s the cold that makes it different.”
The McAllisters are some of the lucky ones who have a fireplace. They’ve been huddled by the fireplace, roasting hot dogs and eggs, they said.
“We’re just camping in our home,” McAllister said.
For many residents, the power outage was more harrowing.
Islander Sheranda Howard was bustling around her kitchen Thursday morning trying to cook food for her five children after power came back on for the first time since Monday.
“I have it right now, but God knows how long it’s going to last,” Howard said.
Howard’s water also was intermittent, but she was more worried about her electricity. Without the ability to cook food for her children, they’d been hungry with just dry food.
“What else can I do?” Howard said.
She couldn’t afford to go to a hotel for several days, and the hotels were full anyway, she said.
The ERCOT grid, which supplies most Texans with power, began faltering late Sunday night when an Arctic cold front swept across the state and power plants began to “trip off” because of the extreme cold, council officials said.
Meanwhile, demand rose as power users began to crank up the heat. The grid was teetering on a complete, catastrophic collapse that would have caused widespread equipment damage and take months to recover from, ERCOT CEO Bill Magness told reporters Wednesday.
“The operators did what they were trained to do,” Magness said. Their training was to cut demand to get the system back into balance before it went over a cliff, he said.
CenterPoint Energy, which supplies much of the county and the greater Houston area with power, was ordered to cut demand, said Julienne Sugarek, vice president of power delivery solutions.
In addition, the cold had damaged some CenterPoint transformers, she said.
The company was rolling outages, Sugarek said.
“We have never, certainly not in recent histories, seen rolling blackouts of this magnitude,” Sugarek said, adding that the entire CenterPoint service area experienced prolonged outages.
Texas power plants and ERCOT were unable to supply CenterPoint with more power for a long time, she said.
Customers who experienced little power interruption probably were on a circuit with critical infrastructure, such as a hospital, or on a circuit making relatively low demand on the system, she said.
“Not all of our circuits are created equal,” Sugarek said. “They don’t all have the same number of customers on them. They don’t all have the same load on them. Some of them have critical infrastructure like hospitals on them.”
By Thursday morning, the system was in a much better position, with power restored to most customers, Sugarek said.
David Heyser traveled to Galveston from Lake Conroe to avoid outages at home and ended up riding out the cold on the island, he said.
“It’s been miserable,” Heyser said. “It’s just ridiculous.”
He and his adult son have been staying in the warmest room in the house under blankets. Thursday morning, the house in Indian Beach on the island’s West End still didn’t have power, he said.
Someone must have mismanaged or neglected the system for something like this to happen, he said.
“We’re not rotating,” Heyser said. “What happened to the rolling power?”
Melanie Patton of Friendswood and her daughter had huddled up next to a fire this week, she said.
“It was 42 in the house,” Patton said. “We were wearing leggings and sweatpants over leggings and long-sleeve T-shirts. We pulled the couch as close as we could to the fireplace and just slept on the couch.”
Patton got power early Thursday morning. It had been off since Monday morning. Now she’s without water except for a trickle from the kitchen faucet, she said, adding that she’s on the list for a plumber.
Others took refuge in warmer places.
Brittney Sierra checked into a motel room with her 1-year-old and 2-month-old children Monday. When the water was turned off, she couldn’t wash her baby’s formula bottles, she said.
Sierra and her husband also are having to throw away a lot of food that spoiled in their freezer.
“There was $300 worth of meat that was in the freezer that is questionable,” Sierra said. “It’s not frozen solid.”
Galveston resident Josh Manuel stayed with his in-laws who had electricity throughout the freeze, he said.
Now that power is returning, he’ll probably stay with his in-laws even longer, since a water pipe burst at his house, he said.
“I’ve been calling all around, but there’s no plumbers until next week,” Manuel said.
Islander Johanna Murton and her husband huddled around their gas fireplace with their 3-month-old baby.
By Thursday, some power had come back on, although Murton knew it was possible they’d lose power again, she said.
“I have to keep reminding myself that,” Murton said. “It was just a huge relief to have some power and some heat.”
Murton and her husband took turns sleeping this week to keep watch on their baby girl, who they’d put in a chair wrapped in blankets to be warm — not the safest sleeping arrangement for an infant, she said.
All Murton’s breast milk in the refrigerator spoiled.
Murton, who has lived in Galveston for three years, is from England, where there are no major weather events like this, she said.
“It was a big shock when you suddenly see what can happen,” Murton said.
It’s possible that residents could experience more rolling outages over the next few days, Sugarek said.
When the temperatures rise, residents should be able to rest assured they’re out of the woods with outages, she said.
When the water went off Tuesday evening, it was another inconvenience and a blow to the spirits of many islanders who had already been without power for nearly two days.
At the University of Texas Medical Branch, the shut-off was an existential threat to more than 600 patients being treated at the island campus.
When the thaw began after a hard, lingering freeze had enveloped most of Texas beginning early Monday, water systems across the county were riddled with breaks and probably contaminated with bacteria. Most suppliers such as cities warned against consuming water without boiling it first.
This posed a special problem for hospitals, where water dictates life, said Steve Leblanc, the medical branch’s vice president for operations.
It’s not used just for drinking and bathing. In the hospital buildings, water powers the heat. It’s used to sterilize instruments and to put out fires. Without water, a hospital is nothing, he said.
And at 10 p.m. Tuesday, the medical branch was nothing.
“I immediately knew that we had a huge problem,” LeBlanc said.
After an emergency meeting at 4 a.m. Monday, a team led by LeBlanc began coordinating with the city to fast-track limited supplies coming across the causeway from the Gulf Coast Water Authority to the pump station on 30th Street and then farther east on the island to the medical branch campus.
“They sent out crews through the night to direct the water to us, so that we could at least keep things running,” LeBlanc said. “The diversion, the direction to the east of the island was being done. It seemed like it took forever.”
As crews were trying to restore water service, a group of planners at the hospital were trying to evacuate 600 patients, as well as research animals, off the island to other facilities, LeBlanc said. A group of dialysis patients, whose treatment requires water, were taken to the medical branch’s League City campus, officials said.
For much of the day, both plans — restoration and evacuation — were at even odds for happening, LeBlanc said.
“We were basically in a race,” LeBlanc said. “The race was: Can we get the water restored before we’re forced to evacuate the hospital?”
At about 4 p.m. Wednesday, restoration won out.
Still, life on Thursday wasn’t back to normal at the medical branch’s hospitals. Teams were going to water sources to install filters, and patients were prevented from showering and instead had to use sanitary wipes to bathe.
Hand-washing stations were being filled from the medical branch’s emergency supply of 800 crates of bottled water. The medical branch received shipments of water from Harbor Offshore, which normally supplies potable water to ships offshore. The delivery arrived via boat to a dock on the Galveston Ship Channel just north of the campus.
LeBlanc, who was Galveston’s city manager in 2008 during Hurricane Ike, said the only thing the winter storm could be compared to was, indeed, a hurricane.
“I’ve never seen a situation quite like this,” LeBlanc said. “But what it is close to is a hurricane. This is very similar in the sense that in a hurricane, you lose power, you lose water, you don’t have services. If the water was not restored, we would have been moving patients.”
The medical branch wasn’t alone in resorting to extraordinary measures to deal with the water shortages.
Texas A&M University at Galveston was transferring water from the campus pool to the purification system on the General Rudder, the college’s maritime training ship, to create a back-up supply of water that was safe to drink.
At the Galveston County Jail, inmates were required to relieve themselves in hazardous material bags because the facility’s pressure-dependent toilets wouldn’t flush.
The last time the jail resorted to using bags for toilets was during Hurricane Ike, Galveston County Sheriff Henry Trochesset said. Trochesset had been in talks with judges and attorneys about reducing the jail population because of the unsanitary conditions, he said.
“All options” had been on the table, he said.
There were 950 people being held in the jail on Thursday. At least 50 were jailed on misdemeanor pretrial holds, which usually carry low bond amounts for non-violent crimes.
Elsewhere around the county, residents reported raiding their supplies of bottled water normally saved for hurricanes to get them through the shortage and subsequent boil warning. Most retailers Thursday had run out of water.
There were varying reports of water problems around the county Thursday. In some places, pressure had returned to near normal, while other places still reported little or no pressure.
Galveston’s director of municipal utilities said it could be as many as four days before the city crews were be able to stabilize the city’s water supply. Crews were going through the city block by block, opening water lines and then repairing leaks.
Meanwhile, emergency response officials were trying to bring temporary relief to residents who were endangered or inconvenienced by the water outages. The city received a shipment of portable toilets and stationed them in more than two dozen spots around the city.
City and county officials also said they were expecting a plane carrying an emergency shipment of bottled water to Scholes Airport in Galveston, and were planning to announce distribution sites on Thursday evening. However, late Thursday afternoon, officials confirmed the plane wouldn’t arrive that day.
How could Texas’ power grid be caught so unprepared for this week’s cold weather?