When Winter Storm Uri brought record-low temperatures to Texas in mid-February, millions of residents had prolonged power outages, and tens of thousands of homes had plumbing damage from frozen pipes.

Among the residents affected by the long-lasting freezing temperatures and subsequent home damage was Monique Chatman, who moved to Missouri City three months ago after retiring from the U.S. Navy.

Chatman lost power at 5 a.m. Feb. 15 and went several days without power or heat, during which the temperatures inside her home continued to drop. Relying on her military training, Chatman stocked up on water, nonperishable food and firewood. Still, her house sustained three burst pipes; two collapsed ceilings; and damage to floors, carpets and bathrooms.

“After hearing the stories of other Texans, my heart went out to them,” Chatman said in her written response. “On the other hand, no way would I have imagined after serving 30 years in the military to include seven sea tours, that I would be conducting damage control in my new home.”

Chatman was just one of 1.42 million customers in the CenterPoint Energy service area who were in the dark by 8 p.m. Feb. 15. At one point, 77% of Missouri City residents were without power, as were the majority of Sugar Land and Fort Bend County residents, according to local government officials. It would take four days before power would be restored to nearly all of CenterPoint’s customers, according to data from the transmission provider.

The Energy Reliability Council of Texas, which manages statewide electric power flow and is one of several regulatory bodies that has faced scrutiny following the storm, had to force outages for more than 70 hours statewide—nearly 10 times as long as outages during a 2011 winter storm that led to earlier calls for improvement to the state’s electric system—to avoid a more widespread, longer-lasting energy shutdown, officials said.

“It created a humanitarian crisis,” ERCOT Board Member Jackie Sargent said during a Feb. 24 meeting regarding the outages. “People in Texas should not have to endure such hardship—or anywhere, for that matter—in 2021.”

Unprecedented crisis

On Feb. 14, every county in Texas was under a winter storm warning, according to the National Weather Service. Not only did Uri bring record cold temperatures—Houston beat its record for the lowest high temperature, previous set in 1895, at 35 degrees—the cold weather lingered for almost a week. Freezing temperatures have led to two other incidents in ERCOT’s history—once in December 1989 and once in February 2011.

“Part of the problem is when ERCOT does its long-range planning and its forecasting, it’s looking at averaging; it’s looking at trends,” said Bruce Race, a University of Houston professor and director of the UH Center for Sustainability and Resilience. “It’s not thinking enough about extreme weather events like this.”

State Rep. Jacey Jetton, R-Richmond, said the Texas electrical grid is built to withstand hot Texas summers, not extreme winter weather.

“Our systems are designed to handle the heat of the summer, and they are made to be more open so they can breathe and stay cooler, which is a total opposite of the way that they’re built up north,” Jetton said. “We do have to find a way to make sure that our systems are prepared to handle the hottest of summers and the coldest of winters, and what that looks like is not going to be the easiest of answers.”

Extreme weather events are becoming more common and more costly—particularly in Texas, according to federal data. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that from 1980 to 2020, the U.S. suffered 285 climate-related disasters—including 124 in Texas—and over $1 billion in resulting damage.

Damage estimates for the February winter storm are not yet known, but the Insurance Council of Texas said the storm is expected to be the largest claims event in the state’s history. By comparison, in the first month after Hurricane Harvey, the council projected that event would cost insurers $19 billion.

“We’re used to these regional events where there is hail in Georgetown, or there are the Dallas tornadoes that hit—but this has impacted every single Texan to one degree or another,” said Camille Garcia, director of communications and public affairs for the Insurance Council of Texas. “We are projecting into the hundreds of thousands of claims.”

A substantial portion of damage came after the freeze as water lines broke and pipes burst. Two Fort Bend ISD campuses—Glover Elementary School and Hightower High School—sustained “significant damage,” and the district was closed for several days due to facility damage and the need for families to recover, according to district press releases.

Weeks later, many residents and business owners are still waiting for plumbers and home contractors to repair damage. The state has been working to help plumbers renew their licenses in the wake of the storm and to coordinate with out-of-state plumbing companies to bring more licensed plumbers into Texas. In a Feb. 20 executive order, Gov. Greg Abbott allowed plumbers' apprentices, who have completed all other qualifications, to perform work without direct supervision from a licensed plumber.

George Davis, Houston Community College Construction Trades program director, said that in the wake of the storm, fraudulent handymen and plumbers are flooding into town in hopes of making money off the disaster.

“It may take a while before a reputable contractor or licensed plumber can come, ... [but] hiring a reputable licensed plumber will be worth the time and the money because most plumbers who are not licensed will connect your home incorrectly, and you’ll have a bigger damage than before,” Davis said.

Fort Bend County Judge KP George sustained substantial property damage to his home, posting photos of flooding due to burst pipes and walls and ceilings that needg to be completely repaired.

“In the middle of [the storm], my house got flooded,” George said. “This is fine. I mean, hundreds of thousands of people have the same situation, and I’m just saying I’m not on any different level—I’m in the same boat as our citizens.”

'A lack of preparation'

ERCOT was founded in 1970 to manage the power grid that covers most of the state. While it is technically a nonprofit, it is regulated by the Public Utility Commission of Texas, a state agency. The PUCT facilitates the wholesale and retail markets, oversees grid capacity and generation, and ensures access to transmission, though ERCOT itself does not own power plants or infrastructure.

ERCOT did alert generators and distribution partners that the storm would bring “record-breaking demand” to the system, but some lawmakers have pointed out that the decisions that set up the grid for potential failure were made years in advance, such as the decision by many generators to not protect facilities from harsh weather conditions—known as "winterizing"—and not having natural gas plants in a position to ramp up.

“We knew that it was going to get too cold for us to be able to generate enough wind, and there were turbine issues. ... That was not the big story,” said Daniel Cohan, a Rice University professor of civil and environmental engineering. “I think [it was] the lack of preparation to get coal-fired power plants, natural gas-fired power plants [and] nuclear going, having adequate natural gas supply, and having that started ahead of time—really, a lack of preparation.”

In a Feb. 17 statement, ERCOT said more than 46,000 megawatts of generation and around 185 generating units were removed from the grid during the storm. This was initially attributed to frozen wind turbines, limited gas supply and pressure, and frozen instrumentation; however, most of the lost generation was from natural gas and coal, output from which dropped by 20% between midnight and 3 a.m. Feb. 15, according to federal energy data.

Furthering the Texas energy shortage was the isolated nature of Texas’ energy grid, which is separate from eastern and western North American interconnects. This was another fault critics highlighted during and after the winter storm: Experts and some lawmakers said this led in part to the devastating outages and has prompted a political reckoning.

“Texans accept a culture of independence and competition—until it fails. Then, it’s a test of our culture,” Race said. “This was a shock. An event like that, as shocks do—they reveal the weak points in any system.”

Local, legislative responses

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Abbott made ERCOT reform an emergency item for the 2021 legislative session. In a Feb. 24 tweet, Abbott said he will not allow the session to end until the power grid is fixed and specifically referenced the need for the system to be winterized.

The Legislature began hearings Feb. 25 with ERCOT, the PUC and other energy providers. ERCOT CEO Bill Magness, who has since resigned, told lawmakers that ERCOT can make recommendations for how plants should winterize but said generators essentially follow an honor system when it comes to implementing them.

“They can decide to take up recommendations or not,” Magness said.

Lawmakers pondered several ways to better enforce winterization, from giving ERCOT the power to issue fines for violations found during spot checks to mandating a certain standard of winterization in state law—a solution Magness said could carry a heavy expense.

“Other states have done [winterized]; it is time for Texas to do it, but it takes money,” said state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City. “That is one of the things that we have to look at—making the capital investment as a state, again the energy capital world—to ensure that our technologies don’t fail when we need them the most.”

Reynolds, a member of the House Energy Resources Committee, has proposed or supported several pieces of related legislation, including a bill that would require ERCOT board members to live in the state of Texas and one that would require notification of prolonged power outages to consumers.

While Reynolds said everyone agrees there is a problem with the state’s electric system, he believes there will be differing opinions on solutions, as Democrats and Republicans often disagree in their approaches to climate change and federal regulations.

“I do believe that we have a joint concern for Texas preparedness to deal with these weather issues, and I think no one can deny that,” Reynolds said. “We all agree that there’s a problem, but there’s probably different ways that we think it should be fixed.”

At the local level, Sugar Land City Council approved an ordinance during its Feb. 23 meeting that authorizes the city to use “certain emergency powers” for items related to storm response, such as water bill adjustments and streamlined permitting and inspection times to expedite repairs.

Businesses and residents who had pipes or water lines break due to the weather, resulting in increased water usage and higher bills, may be eligible for a water bill adjustment for the week of the storm. The city said it is also granting payment plans to households and businesses experiencing financial hardship, which allow customers to pay their outstanding balances and current charges over a longer period with no additional penalties or risk of disconnection.

“Residents of Sugar Land have endured conditions no one should have to experience during the past week,” Mayor Joe R. Zimmerman said during the Feb. 23 meeting. “Many have sustained damage to their homes and businesses and are facing extensive repairs. The ordinance we approved is intended to help our residents and businesses through the recovery process.”

While Missouri City City Council has not approved any relief measures directly related to the winter storm, City Manager Odis Jones said the city is helping residents apply for aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Jones said that he is happy with how the city responded to the storm and communicated with residents but added that the city will conduct a review of its emergency preparedness system prior to the upcoming hurricane season. He said it is imperative that the state also respond before the next weather-related event.

“We are going to demand accountability because [this] makes the city vulnerable, and I’m not just speaking for Missouri City, but it makes our residents vulnerable,” Jones said. “Four days of not having power—no matter whether it’s a winter storm or whether it’s a hurricane, that’s something we can’t account for.”

Additional reporting by Laura Aebi, Shawn Arrajj, Matt Dulin, Hunter Marrow and Ben Thompson.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to accurately state that Camille Garcia is the director of communications and public affairs at the Insurance Council of Texas.