AUSTIN, Texas (NewsNation Now) — A sprawling blast of winter weather in Texas knocked out power for more than 4 million people, shut down grocery stores, closed schools and delayed coronavirus vaccine deliveries ahead of frigid days expected in the week to come.
As temperatures plummeted again into single digits at nightfall, officials warned that homes still without power would likely not have heat until at least Tuesday morning, as frustration mounted and the state’s electric grid came under growing demand and criticism.
“Things will likely get worse before they get better,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in the county of nearly 5 million people around Houston.
Law enforcement reported two men were found dead along Houston-area roadways. Causes of death were pending, but officials said the subfreezing temperatures were likely to blame. In Austin, a winter storm warning issued by the National Weather Service is set to take effect Tuesday evening until Thursday morning. The area is reeling from its first-ever wind chill warning, and bitter cold temperatures behind heavy snowfall and ice accumulations aren’t offering any help to make roads passable. The warning is in effect until Tuesday afternoon.
The toll of the worsening conditions included the delivery of new COVID-19 vaccine shipments, which were expected to be delayed until at least midweek. Massive power outages across Houston included a facility storing 8,000 doses of Moderna vaccine, leaving health officials scrambling to find takers at the same time authorities were pleading for people to stay home.
State health officials said Texas, which was due to receive more than 400,000 additional vaccine doses this week, now does not expect deliveries to occur until at least Wednesday.
The largest grocery store chain in Texas, H-E-B, closed locations around Austin and San Antonio, cities that are unaccustomed to snow and have few resources to clear roads. The slow thaw and more frigid lows ahead was also taking a toll on Texas’ distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
The weather also put existing vaccine supply in jeopardy. Rice University on Monday abruptly began offering vaccines on its closed Houston campus after Harris Health System told the school it had about 1,000 vaccines that “were going to go to waste,” said Doug Miller, a university spokesman.
“The window was just a couple hours. They have to take care of it quickly,” Miller said.
Harris County officials said a facility storing the vaccines had lost power Monday and that a backup generator also failed. Hidalgo said she did not believe any vaccines were lost.
Temperatures nosedived into the single-digits as far south as San Antonio, and homes that had already been without electricity for hours had no certainty about when the lights and heat would come back on, as the state’s overwhelmed power grid began imposing blackouts that are typically only seen in 100-degree Fahrenheit summers.
The storm was part of a massive system that brought snow, sleet and freezing rain to the southern Plains and was spreading across the Ohio Valley and to the Northeast. The Southwest Power Pool, a group of utilities across 14 states, called for rolling outages because the supply of reserve energy had been exhausted. Some utilities said they were starting blackouts, while others urged customers to reduce power usage.
“This weather event, it’s really unprecedented. We all living here know that,” said Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. He defended preparations made by grid operators and described the demand on the system as record-setting.
“This event was well beyond the design parameters for a typical, or even an extreme, Texas winter that you would normally plan for. And so that is really the result that we’re seeing,” Woodfin said.
Air travel was also affected. In Houston, officials said Bush Intercontinental Airport runways would remain closed until at least 1 p.m. Tuesday, a day longer than previously expected.
The storm arrived over a three-day holiday weekend that has seen the most U.S. air travel since the period around New Year’s. More than 1 million people went through airport security checkpoints on Thursday and Friday. However, that was still less than half the traffic of a year ago, before the pandemic hit with full force.
The southern Plains had been gearing up for the winter weather for the better part of the weekend. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for all of the state’s 254 counties. Abbott, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson each activated National Guard units to assist state agencies with tasks including rescuing stranded drivers.
President Joe Biden also declared an emergency in Texas in a statement Sunday night. The declaration is intended to add federal aid to state and local response efforts.
The Associated Press and NewsNation affiliate KXAN contributed to this report.