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In Frigid Texas, Desperate Families Take Risks to Stay Warm

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 2/18/2021 Elizabeth Findell
a person driving a car © Julia Robinson for The Wall Street Journal

AUSTIN, Texas—The children played in front of four lighted gas burners in East Austin on Tuesday night as their family tried to warm up during days of subfreezing temperatures, no power, and no relief on the horizon.

One-year-old Alex Johnson Jr. toddled, his brother Gabriel Brewster, 3, played with a toy and their cousin Desiah Fisher, 6, hugged them close, as eight other family members huddled around the light of a single candle. Charlene Brewster, the mother of the boys and a 4-month-old daughter, said she knows how dangerous it is to try to heat an apartment with a gas stove. She had no option but to try it for a little while, she said.

“I know carbon monoxide poisoning, but what else can we do?” said Ms. Brewster, a city of Austin crossing guard. “Is anyone going to help us? I have a baby in here.”

It was a level of desperation many others in Texas had reached, days into a power grid shutdown during one of the coldest weeks in a generation. Like others across the state, Ms. Brewster’s family lost electricity—and heat—late Sunday night, before a snowstorm closed most of the city and temperatures plunged to single digits. As of midday Wednesday, officials had no estimate of when power might return.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the power grid in the state, ordered blackouts to prevent damage to the electricity system after frozen power plants and a shortfall of natural gas required to run the plants limited power production.

In the public-housing complex where Ms. Brewster lives, help seemed far away. Those who risked driving were likely to meet blocked roadways or iced-over hills that many drivers couldn’t traverse. Those who called the city’s help line for transportation to an emergency warming shelter met only busy phone lines, they said. Many said they had no water or had run out of food. Most businesses had been closed all week.

Daylan Cook, 18, said he had built a fire inside a ceramic pot in his apartment living room, aided by hand sanitizer and gasoline. LaShay Thomas, 34, said she had developed a migraine headache from fumes, and had begged neighbors to turn gas burners off, despite the vicious cold.

City officials urged residents not to resort to dangerous measures for heat. The Austin Fire Department reported responding to fires at several houses that likely began in fireplaces and to several toxic-exposure calls from residents using charcoal in their homes. The local emergency medical services department said it had responded to 63 carbon monoxide exposure calls in 2 1/2 days. In Houston, the local public health authority said the city was seeing record numbers of carbon monoxide poisonings, including at least two deaths.

Sharice Owens and Tosha Henderson, who are sisters, said they had tried to build a fire in Ms. Henderson’s home, but it quickly got too smoky for Ms. Owens’s three young children. They huddled instead under blankets in Ms. Owens’s apartment, where the kids, ages 4, 5, and 13, begged for warmth and food that the family had no way to cook.

“There’s only so much heat you can generate,” Ms. Henderson said. “It was 10 degrees. There’s only so many covers you can use. We were told there were supposed to be power rotations.”

In Austin, the downtown area and many of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods on the west side never lost power, while the eastern neighborhoods that are home to more lower-income residents and communities of color have been without power for several days. The city said it has given priority to portions of the power grid that include hospitals, shelters, government buildings and other critical infrastructure.

In parts of Austin, Houston and elsewhere in the state, residents were warned to boil water to make it safe to drink, despite many not having the means to do so without electricity.

With no idea how long the blackout would continue, Chris Barnett, 38, was smoking meat on his back steps Wednesday morning. Mr. Barnett, who often sells his barbecue, said he planned to give out the meat to any of his neighbors who had been short on food. He had taken his kids to their grandparents’ house, which had heat. So many relatives were crowded there that he and his wife decided to tough out the cold at home.

Others were braving the icy roads Wednesday to try to find somewhere safer to stay. Ms. Owens was trying to make it to her mother’s house elsewhere in the Austin area, hoping it would be warmer. Ms. Brewster’s family group of about a dozen was heading for her boyfriend’s parents’ house, which had no power either, but does have a fireplace.

That would be safer than the gas stove, she said.

Write to Elizabeth Findell at Elizabeth.Findell@wsj.com

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