CLEBURNE, Texas -- As temperatures broke above freezing for the first time in seven days, millions of Texans began to survey damage left in the wake of historic winter weather that collapsed the state's power grid, leaving millions struggling to stay warm.
But grid operators' declaration Friday that electric service had returned to normal was a small comfort to residents who spent days in emergency shelters or coping with burst pipes at home.
By Friday morning, residents of towns spread across north and east Texas found themselves coping with water system shutdowns, empty store shelves and fuel shortages.
Seventy miles north of Houston in Huntsville, officials took the city's water system offline Tuesday afternoon after pressure dipped to unsafe levels. Huntsville Memorial Hospital was without water for about three days. And many residents nearby still were without water by Friday morning.
“It’s crazy because we’ve been dealing with one disaster from COVID and now we are dealing with a whole new one on top of it from this weather,” said Huntsville Memorial Hospital CEO Steve Smith.
As of Thursday afternoon 14 million people in the state were affected by boil water advisories or system shutdowns caused by the deep freeze, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Temperatures across the state plunged below freezing on Feb. 13, and dropped to lows at or near zero degrees both Monday and Tuesday nights across large swaths of the state. Electricity demand spikes during the unprecedented cold snap caused the state's electric grid to buckle. Many communities were subjected to rolling blackouts as grid operators attempted to ration power. Others simply went without electricity for days on end.
Officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said as many as 4 million customers faced power outages during the frigid weather.
Judy Privette said her household in Weatherford -- about a half hour northwest of Dallas -- lost power early Monday morning.
On Tuesday, water in both toilets in the house froze. Water dripped out of the bathtub faucet just enough for it to be used to flush the toilets.
“It was 47 degrees in the living room, 32 hours without electricity and counting,” Privette said. “I called eight hotels [Monday night] and all were sold out.”
She and her brother found some relief Tuesday afternoon at Privette’s son’s house — which had intermittent power during the state’s rolling blackouts. Her power was restored Wednesday.
Several nearby communities, including Mineral Wells, Aledo, Willow Park and Springtown, issued boil water notices to residents.
Libby Afflerbach, who lives near Weatherford in Willow Park, on Thursday said she was doing her best to heat snow while she was without water.
“Wednesday morning I woke up with no water and of course that’s a big panic because you think the pipes are going to break. After about three [neighbors] said their water was off too, we knew it was a city thing,” she said.
Afflerbach said she never received notification from the city that there was an issue or that the water system was shutdown — just a boil notice.
“We don’t have any water so a boil notice is worthless," she said. "I’ve just been shoveling snow into big horse buckets that I have, but melting snow on the stove doesn’t make you much water. So I’ve been doing that and rationing my flushes and just waiting.”
Like many, her water service was restored Friday morning as neighborhoods and towns regained electric service.
In the midst of the freeze, many were forced to flee their homes as conditions became unlivable. They lingered in those shelters into Friday morning.
Power went out Monday night in Robin Mahew's older home in Cleburne, and cycled on and off until things went dark for good Wednesday.
"It got down to 32 degrees in my house," she said. "It was bad. So I called 911 and said 'We gotta get out of here.'"
Mahew joined dozens of others from the town of about 30,000 took refuge in a temporary shelter setup by local emergency workers at the Cleburne Conference Center. They huddled on cots in the warm halls for days on end as rolling blackouts continued.
Dennis Foster, 69, lives in an RV in Cleburne and thought he was prepared as the arctic blast swept into the state.
"I thought I was ready for the ice and everything," Foster said. "I had food stocked up and all that. I didn't expect the power to go out."
Foster rode out the worst of the cold in the conference center-turned-shelter.
On Thursday, the day before his state began to ease into warmer, more typical winter temperatures, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered an investigation into the state's power grid failure.
By Friday morning, many Texans had begun to assess the aftermath left in the wake of the unprecedented cold and coinciding grid collapse.
"I've been in this area my whole life and I've never seen it like this," Foster said. "It's unbelievable. There's no telling how many people are going to die because of this."