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Energy & Environment
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.

Austin's Under A Boil-Water Notice, But 'Tens Of Thousands' Have No Running Water To Boil

Jacqueline Fabian, left, an Instacart shopper for Costco, makes a water and grocery delivery to Kristin Rash during the winter storm on Thursday.
Julia Reihs
/
KUT
Jacqueline Fabian, left, an Instacart shopper for Costco, makes a water and grocery delivery to Kristin Rash during the winter storm on Thursday.

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When the City of Austin issued a boil-water notice on Wednesday night, many residents were baffled. Some wondered: How can I boil water if I don’t have electricity? Others didn’t have water to boil at all.

Rachel Finken lives in the Oak Hill neighborhood in Southwest Austin with her husband and two young kids. They got their power back after a couple days without it, but now they don’t have running water.

“Wednesday morning when we woke up, we thought maybe a pipe had burst because no water was coming out of our upstairs faucets and the water downstairs was just really low pressure,” she said. “And then pretty quickly it all just stopped completely.”

Her neighbors’ water stopped, too. When she saw city leaders posting online about the boil-water notice, she grew frustrated they weren’t addressing the fact many actually lacked water.

“They were posting videos about how to boil water, which feels very irrelevant if you are like us and don’t have water, and you’re like many people who maybe have water but don’t have a means of boiling it right now,” she said. “It just feels pretty tone deaf to post that without acknowledging that there’s neighborhoods that have no water at all to boil.”

The winter storm that covered Austin in snow, then ice, and then more snow, has left residents without power for days and now many without running water. The freeze has led to burst pipes and water main breaks. Over the last several days, many residents were dripping faucets and storing water, all of which drained the city’s water supply. The result: low water pressure and, in some cases, no water at all.

Then Austin’s largest water-treatment facility lost power. That combination led the city to issue the boil-water notice Wednesday. Austin Water says it's working on a plan to restore the water system, but hasn’t given residents a clear answer on when water will come back — and when it will be safe to drink.

“It’s going to be a multi-day process to restore pressure and service,” Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said at a news conference Thursday. “Customers that don’t have water, it’s better to plan for the worst conditions: days without water, rather than hours.”

He said “many tens of thousands” are without water across the city.

"It's pretty anxiety-inducing not knowing when we can get water back because we can’t make a plan."
Rachel Finken

Before their water went out, Finken and her family stored water in the bathtub. They're now using that water to flush toilets. They’ve started lugging snow in from outside to melt in the tub, as well. Finken said she feels fortunate they have a case of water they bought from Target a while back.

“So, we’re fine for drinking water for right now,” she said. “But with all of that said, it’s pretty anxiety-inducing not knowing when we can get water back because we can’t make a plan.”

Stephanie Paulos and her family of five (plus a dog and a fish) have been without running water since Wednesday morning, too. The power in their Southwest Austin home was out at the time, but it came back Wednesday afternoon, she said.

“My kids have been tasked right now with collecting snow into several ice chests outside so that we can melt that snow for washing and flushing and things like that," she said, "and potentially then have to boil it for drinking water when we run out of our stores of drinking water."

They have some tap water stored up. The family had been dripping faucets during the freeze, but instead of letting the water drip down the drain, they collected it.

Paulos said it’s been confusing to know how to plan ahead, since she hasn’t gotten official word from the city on why the water went off, when it will come back and what other safety precautions need to be taken in the meantime.

"The communication piece is really what’s lacking here," she said. "If you don’t have power and these are happening on social media channels, like Facebook Live, I’m wondering how people — elderly people or people without a smartphone — are going to gather this information, and why there haven’t been better attempts to communicate what safety precautions are and what to do during this time."

Most help and information has come from neighbors, she said. They’ve been talking with each other to solve problems, such as how to prevent pipes from breaking.

“The other concerning piece that we were trying to figure out yesterday was whether we needed to turn our water heater off because if the water tank is empty and you have power and gas in your house, there’s potential for causing a house fire if you keep your water heater on,” she said. “But again this is all information not from formal sources, but from us trying to gather that information from our neighbors.”

She said neighbors have also been communicating with each other that nearby stores are out of drinking water. Some are working to buy bags of ice they can share with each other to melt and drink.

“Once we expire our storage, I have no idea what will happen,” she said. “I hope that they can restore water prior to that occurring, but I imagine even then, we’ll still have to boil for several days. But at least there’ll be water in the pipe.”

Got a tip? Email Marisa Charpentier at mcharpentier@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.

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