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Central Texas experienced historic winter weather the week of Feb. 14, with a stretch of days below freezing. Sleet followed snow followed freezing rain, leading to a breakdown of the electric grid and widespread power outages. Water reservoirs were depleted and frozen pipes burst, leaving some without service for days.

Water Service Has Been Restored In Austin, But Taps Are Still Dry For Many People In Apartment Buildings

A woman fills a cooler with water from a hose.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Antoinette Cervantes fills up a cooler with water from a hose near the pool at her North Austin apartment complex Tuesday. Although service was restored to most of the city Monday, her apartment still had no water.

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Antoinette Cervantes lugs an empty cooler from her apartment in North Austin several times a day. She walks it down a flight of stairs, across a parking lot and through a gate toward the pool, passing lounge chairs and tables on her way.

When she gets to a hose, Cervantes plops the cooler down. It takes about two minutes to fill with water — water she now measures in terms of flushes.

“It takes about half this cooler to fill up the tank just to flush the toilet,” she says. One cooler = two flushes. She hauls the blue Yeti cooler, now much heavier, back across the parking lot, up the flight of stairs and into her apartment.

“This, for the foreseeable future, is what we’re doing,” Cervantes says.

Cervantes and many of her neighbors at Summit at Hyde Park have been without running water since last Tuesday. In an email shared with KUT, the property management company said it couldn’t say when water would be restored, because parts needed for repairs were on backorder.

Austin Water restored service to all its customers Monday, after many had been without running water for days. Freezing temperatures last week damaged pipes, and leaks drained the city’s water reserve; a power outage at a water-treatment facility compounded the issue.

stelmos_MM_022021.jpg
Michael Minasi / KUT
Employees of St. Elmo Brewing Company refill containers with water, at the brewery in South Austin on Saturday. Breweries and other businesses were providing free water to people who didn't have access to potable water at home.

But while the city’s water supply is back up and running — and safe to drink — homeowners and apartment managers have begun a crucial assessment: Is there a leak? If yes, many are learning a fix may be out of reach for now, with demand for plumbers soaring and parts needed for repairs in short supply.

Damage seems to be most widespread at apartment complexes, where one cracked pipe means an entire building is without water. The result is that some renters are skimming pools for water, depending on a network of aid groups for water deliveries and even leaving their homes altogether.

“It doesn’t end with the nice weather,” Cervantes, who works in admissions at a free-standing ER, said. Because she interacts with people who may have COVID-19, she typically showers immediately after getting home. She’s had to do this at a friend’s house instead.

“We still don’t have a timeframe of when we’re going to get running water again," she said.

Austin Water said it does not have a count of how many people are still without water. A group of local nonprofits, tenant advocacy groups and unions have been trying to keep a tally. As of Monday, they had counted nearly 200 apartment complexes throughout Austin where some percentage of tenants did not have water.

“I think it’s conservative to say that there are thousands of people still without water right now,” Austin Council Member Greg Casar told KUT. “It’s really important for us to recognize that we are not on the other side of this crisis yet.”

"Like trying to plug a dam with your finger"

Single-family homeowners are also dealing with pipe damage. But because of the complexity of multifamily plumbing, one busted pipe could mean dozens of tenants without water.

“When it comes to multifamily residences, you don’t have individual shut-off valves for each unit. Typically, most apartment buildings have one master shut-off,” Chris Taylor, plumbing director at Radiant Plumbing & Air, said.

To get water flowing back to every apartment, he said, a plumber needs to check for and repair leaks throughout the entire building first.

That can often feel like playing a game of catch-up, where maintenance crews turn on the water in a building, find several leaks, turn the water off and fix the leaks. When they switch the water back on, sometimes they find more damage.

"It’s like trying to plug a dam with your finger," said Cecil Domel, regional supervisor for Belco Equities, a property management company in Austin. "And when you plug one hole, another one shows up and then another one."

“I’ve lived through historic events in New York, and I’ve never experienced not having water.”
Keeana Kee, Austin resident

Domel said each of the 13 properties he oversees in Austin and neighboring suburbs had pipe damage.

For tenants like Keeana Kee, who lives with her son in
Farmhouse Apartments off I-35 in South Austin, that means water comes on only to be turned off again. On Tuesday morning, Kee had been without consistent water for a week. She and her neighbors melted snow, frantically filled tubs when water was intermittently on and collected water from their communal pool.

Kee used whatever she could find as a container.

“I have one of those Instant cooker thingies … InstantPot!” Kee said. “I took the pot out and we were using that to scoop water.”

Kee said last week a pipe burst and water flooded several apartments, including her bedroom and closet. She and her son began sleeping at a cousin’s home in Lakeway, where they were able to shower.

Kee finally got some reprieve Tuesday afternoon. A leasing agent confirmed to KUT that water had been turned on at the apartment complex, although the water heater was still busted, so the water was cold.

Kee, who grew up in New York City, said she’s never lived without running water.

“I’ve been through blackouts, 9/11, snowstorms,” she said. “I’ve lived through historic events in New York, and I’ve never experienced not having water.”

“An absolute public health and safety concern”

At a meeting scheduled for Thursday morning, Austin City Council members will discuss what happened during the power and water outages caused by the freezing temperatures last week. Casar said he anticipates the biggest focus will be on identifying those still without water and how the city can get water to them.

“Although pipes are damaged and broken on private property, it is an absolute public health and safety concern and a public concern if people don’t have water,” he told KUT.

In the meantime, nonprofits like Workers Defense Project and Building and Strengthening Tenant Action (BASTA) have been getting tanks of water to apartment complexes when they can.

While announcing water was restored to customers Monday, Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros noted that fixing the damage to private pipes would be the next hurdle. He estimated there might be “tens of thousands” of breaks to water pipes on private property.

With little information from public officials about relief and property managers unable to provide timelines for fixes, some renters have decided to leave their apartments altogether.

A couple loads items into the trunk of a car.
Michael Minasi / KUT
Whitney and Nick Morrow, with their 9-month-old son Shelby, pack up their car to go stay with family in Louisiana, because their North Austin apartment doesn't have running water.

Whitney Morrow and her family have been without water at The Ridge Apartments in Northwest Austin for more than a week. She and her husband have been using wipes to keep their 9-month-old son, Shelby, clean.

“He’s a baby, so he gets everything on everything,” Morrow said. She also hasn’t been able to wash her nursing bras. She’s been throwing them in the dryer, so at least they’re not wet.

As of Tuesday, managers at the apartment complex had not been able to tell Morrow when water would be restored. (KUT reached out to the property management company, but did not hear back.)

“I talked to my management office and I was like, ‘Just wink twice if we need to take my baby and go to my parents’ house in Louisiana,’” Morrow said. “And she said, ‘I’m so sorry, but wink, wink.’”

The family loaded up the car that morning for the six-hour drive. Shelby had plenty of things to entertain him in his car seat, including his current favorite distraction, a toy in the shape of a piece of pizza.

Morrow said she takes comfort in knowing her son won’t remember any of this.

“He doesn’t know anything about the dumpster fire that we’re currently going through.”

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