Extreme Winter Weather Sweeps Across the U.S. South
Speaker 1: I'm here from San Antonio. You got snow in front of the Alamo. I don't live too far from here. You never think you see the day until you got snow coming down like this.
Speaker 2: Things will likely get worse before they get better. 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.
Speaker 3: Do everything you can to be warm in a safe manner. I do not encourage people, for example, to try to leave their homes. The roadways and the streets are still very much treacherous. We have a number of warming centers throughout the city, but I would tell you even a couple of them are without power.
Speaker 4: Our resources are really being stretched thin. We had 56 fire calls over the last 24 hours and we responded to over 90 calls for carbon monoxide poisoning.
Speaker 5: The next few days are going to be very tough.
Tanzina: You're listening to the Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega. Cities across the southern United States experienced record low temperatures during a dangerous winter storm this week. So far, at least 20 people have died. In Texas, the state's electric grid was unprepared to deal with the bitter cold and as a result, millions of residents lost power and have had to go without heat during the storm. The freezing temperatures and snowfall from this week's storm have also been particularly threatening for residents of these states who are experiencing homelessness.
Some shelters have had to turn people away because of pandemic related capacity limits, and in Houston, Texas, multiple warming centers have had to close after losing power. But Texas is not the only state facing these issues. Other states, including Mississippi and Tennessee are also facing brutal winter weather right now, endangering many of their most vulnerable residents.
We're going to check in with two reporters for what they're seeing. Paige Pfleger is a reporter with WPLN News in Nashville. Paige, thanks for joining us.
Paige: Thanks for having me
Tanzina: Joey Palacios is the local government reporter for San Antonio with Texas Public Radio. Joey, thank you for being with us.
Joey: Absolutely. Thank you.
Tanzina: Joey, tell us what you're seeing on the ground in San Antonio right now. Where are the power outages? Do you have power?
Joey: No, I have not had power for about 48 hours now. It all started around 2:00 AM Monday morning when it was snowing heavily, and snow is not common in San Antonio. We got about four inches of snow and that hasn't happened in more than 36 years. It started with rolling blackouts. Those lasted maybe like 10, 15 minutes at a time, then they lasted hours. I haven't had power for more than, like with unint--
I haven't had any semblance of power now for more than a day, so going on at least 48 hours now without anything reliable. In my house it's about 35 degrees. There's still freezing rain falling outside right now so it has been- and I'm not alone. There's around 300,000 households and businesses that don't have power in San Antonio, up to about 4 million or so across the state. It's a very widespread situation affecting a lot of people in Texas.
Tanzina: Joey, what are Texas state officials saying about the power outages? We're hearing reporting that it's unclear when the power is going to return to the state.
Joey: That's correct and it's going to depend on the weather. As I mentioned, there's still freezing rain that was falling this morning and things are going to have to thaw before things can get back to normal. One of the major problems is that this icy cold weather where wind chills have gotten to -4, -6
degrees here in San Antonio, when this started, has taken some of the state's power generating capacity offline. The power grid manager in Texas is called ERCOT, and that stands for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.
It's that agency that started issuing the mandatory calls for rolling blackouts when some of these generating capacities like wind turbines, natural gas, nuclear power, coal power, some of these just started going offline because those plants couldn't handle the cold. Some of the plants here were not weatherized for this type of cold. As soon as some of these plants and units come back online, others go offline.
There's an issue right now where natural gas is freezing and so that gas that goes to power those plants isn't necessarily making it there. It's this cycle right now of things coming online, going offline, and utilities and the power grid operator not having a clear answer of when things are going to get back to normal.
Tanzina: Paige, we just heard what Joey is dealing with over in Texas. You're in Tennessee. What are things looking like where you are?
Paige: It's definitely more mild than what's going on in Texas. There have been intermittent outages in different counties across specifically, mostly, middle Tennessee. At any given time there are a couple of thousand people without power, but it's seeming like things are getting back up pretty quickly. Yesterday there were a couple hundred people in Nashville, Davidson County who didn't have power. Today they're reporting the that's down to only a handful of people. It seems like in comparison to what's going on in Texas, Tennessee is definitely more mild.
Tanzina: Joey, who is feeling the impact of this weather right now most acutely? We know that in some cities in Texas, there was a mandate to house people, for example, but given the weather and given the extreme temperatures there, is that even possible right now?
Joey: I can tell you that the city of San Antonio has set up a warming center within its convention center and that took a little bit of time to set up. The convention center can hold about 500 people or so in this circumstance. That's how many people they'll be able to let in. It took a while to set up because the city of San Antonio wasn't sure which facilities would be able to hold on to power long enough to be able to care for that many people.
Our power utility here is called CPS Energy. It's municipally owned and the city has gotten a pretty much a guarantee from CPS Energy that the convention center is not going to lose power. We've seen these blackouts in different parts of the city, almost randomly. It really depends on what circuit somebody is on and whether that circuit is connected to a hospital or other critical infrastructure, as to whether that power gets shut off. It appears my house is not connected to any of that such critical infrastructure. This warming center that I mentioned, they have COVID precautions in place.
They're making sure that people aren't too close to one another. The state has also set up some emergency warming centers around as well, but my understanding is that not one of those has been set up within San Antonio, they're in different parts of the state. That's why the city has its own center right now. Even before all of this started, the city started working with some nonprofits, some churches, to be able to house folks that are homeless during this, even before these power outages started. The city does also have its own massive homeless shelter called Haven for Hope where people are being [unintelligible 00:08:07] as well.
Tanzina: Paige, in Tennessee and Nashville in particular, what are efforts looking like to take the most vulnerable residents there and get them into shelter?
Paige: It's interesting. I assumed as a northerner who just moved to Tennessee, that there might not be enough space in different shelters here in Nashville to take care of people who are unhoused during this weather. The answer was quite fascinating, which is that were it not for the COVID pandemic, things might have been in much more dire straights, but during the middle of the pandemic, the city government here turned the fairground facility, the old fairgrounds, into a shelter. They've been taking care of people down there who don't have housing and as a result of that they were able to expand that space to take in people during this cold weather as well.
Tanzina: Paige, what are officials in Nashville saying about the weather? Is it expected to improve? Is it expected to get worse?
Paige: It's expected to stay quite cold for the rest of the week. I think we saw over the weekend, as this stretch of cold weather has gone on, more folks without housing have been seeking shelter. But by this time next week, it's supposed to be in the 50s so it won't hold on for too long, but the city is really definitely very proud of the fact that they have enough space to take care of people in the meantime.
Tanzina: Joey, how are people dealing with the cold? You mentioned that this was the first time in 36 years that there had been a storm like this, but how are people just generally trying to deal with the cold if there's no power?
Joey: I can tell you right now that I have a sweater, a jacket, a robe, two pairs of pajama pants, and I'm covered in over two blankets right now. It's a lot of self-insulating and I can tell you that people-- One of the things that I've had to do because the power has been out for so long, is the food that I have in the fridge, it wasn't going to stay cold for very long. There's still snow outside. Even though it snowed two days ago, the snow hasn't melted yet, so to protect some of the food that we have, I've put it basically in a bin and it's sitting outside in the snow right now.
We still have plenty of non-perishable foods so we don't have any issue of food right now but we've seen photos of grocery stores, some that are actually still able to open. We know that some grocery stores haven't been able to open, but their shelves are bare. Even more bare than when the pandemic was first starting. The convenience store just down the street from outside of my neighborhood, its shelves of all the snack foods are also bare.
Even the gas at that convenience store, there's no more regular and there's no more super. It's only premium right now because there's people that, even though the streets are filled with ice and it's been absolutely advised not to travel anywhere, people are having to go into their car to warm up, to charge their phone. I've had to do that several times. I'm definitely not alone in that because people that I've asked on social media are doing the same thing. Making trips to the car in short bursts just to get some semblance of heat.
Tanzina: Joey, that's not sustainable and I think so many people are looking at this situation and thinking how quickly is Texas and San Antonio and other parts of the state going to be able to dig out of the storm. What are you hearing from officials right now? Were they prepared for this? Were there not trucks with salt on the ground? Were there any areas where the state and local government could have done better?
Joey: From the perspective of somebody on the ground, it feels like there could have been a lot more done, but this is not a normal occurrence for Texas. This is something that, you know, people for instance don't have ice scrapers in their car. They don't have the normal type of winter weather preparedness that folks in the north might have. I think that similarly here with local governments and even state governments, where snowplows are not readily available here.
Tanzina: Finally, Joey, has there been any talk about help from the federal government?
Joey: Yes. Just before the winter storm started, Texas Governor Greg Abbott asked for an emergency declaration, or a federal disaster declaration rather from the White House. The White House did grant that on Sunday, so there are resources available from the federal government including access to FEMA and other emergency management resources.
Tanzina: Well, we'll be paying close attention to see how this plays out. Paige Pfleger is a reporter for WPLN News in Nashville and Joey Palacios is a local government reporter for Texas Public Radio. Thanks so much to you both and please stay safe.
Joey: Thank you.
Paige: Thanks for having us.
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